BON AIR, Va.--Democrats in Washington like to portray House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., as the obstructor-in-chief when it comes to President Obama’s agenda.
But that anger has not translated into much help here in central Virginia for Wayne Powell, a Richmond-area lawyer and retired Army colonel who is Cantor’s relatively unknown Democratic challenger in this fall’s election.
Powell, 61, not only faces an entrenched and well-funded incumbent in his first run for elected office, he must do so in a Republican-leaning group of counties that in 2008 sided with Republican John McCain over Barack Obama—even as the state of Virginia fell to Obama overall.
This lack of help from Washington Democrats in Powell's uphill fight against the House’s No. 2 Republican comes as Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is himself enjoying no Democratic challenger whatsoever this fall. It may be fair for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Washington strategists to gauge Powell’s race against Cantor, 49, as unwinnable, prompting them to funnel resources to more-promising House campaigns to ultimately remove Cantor from his majority-leader perch. Democrats need a net pickup of at least 25 House seats to regain the majority they lost in 2010.
But, predictably, Powell and his camp say that’s wrong-minded.
“We can make this a referendum on Eric Cantor. We’ve got time. If we get the bucks, we can get the bang,” said the colorful Virginia-based Democratic strategist David “Mudcat” Saunders, who is helping with Powell’s campaign for a House seat from what will be Virginia’s new 7th Congressional District.
Saunders, an adviser in John Edwards’s 2008 presidential campaign, also played earlier roles in Mark Warner’s winning run for governor in 2001 and Jim Webb’s successful bid for the Senate in 2006. He is noisily making the rounds with mostly his own cable TV and radio appearances to bring a more “national” focus to Powell’s race. As part of this, Saunders seeks to depict Cantor as “a bought-and-paid-for crook,” a reference to suggestions that Cantor holds too-cozy ties to corporate America and Wall Street.
“It’s the system. Everybody in Richmond who knows him thinks he’s a crook. And he is a crook. But everything he does is legal. It’s the system that's criminal,” Saunders said. He calls Cantor a leader in what has become a “coin-operated government," with the “bad guys” pumping in the most coins.
But a candid assessment of the campaign comes from the candidate himself, sitting on a recent night inside a local library following a sparsely attended town hall. Powell says too many people are still not engaged in the race—including Democratic leaders in Washington and perhaps even Cantor himself.
“I don’t think he’s totally engaged. Because I don’t think he thinks he needs to be,” said Powell, who admits he’s met Cantor only once. “He was very polite,” he said of his opponent.
Cantor’s team denies that its candidate is aloof. But Cantor’s schedule from mid-August to the end of the month does reflect more attention toward out-of-state appearances on behalf of fellow House Republicans and other GOP candidates.
Although Cantor refused to debate his Democratic challenger in 2010, he has agreed to a debate with Powell on Sept. 28 that will be sponsored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. While the Powell team has been pushing for debates, it is not thrilled with the setting. Saunders describes the chamber as a venue where Cantor “can get softball questions” and get in front of a friendly crowd. “We wanted to meet him, debate him, in front of an open meeting of the 7th District, where everybody could come,” he said.
Meanwhile, Powell acknowledges he’s met just twice with Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and come away without any promises of funding or other help. “Nice guy,” Powell said of Israel. “I think it’s more of an assumption Cantor can’t be beat, so why throw money at it?”
Jesse Ferguson, a DCCC spokesman, responded, “There’s lots of campaigns throughout the country that we are watching and interested in, and hopeful they will be competitive enough to be targets into the fall. And we hope this will be one of those campaigns.”
As of the end of June, however, Cantor’s advantages in the race include having raised $6.3 million for his war chest, compared with Powell’s $259,538. And of that amount for Powell, $99,149 was a loan to his campaign from himself.
Powell and Saunders insist Washington Democrats are wrongly reading the available tea leaves—meaning, their internal polling. They push out numbers done for their camp by Hickman Analytics showing that even with Powell's relative obscurity, Cantor is not particularly popular in his district. For the Powell team, those results indicate a better-funded challenge could create problems for the incumbent.