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.
On the stump, Powell likes to underscore his military background—his five years of active Army duty and 25 years in the active reserves. His website says he was called back into active duty after the Sept. 11 attacks to command a specialized Army intelligence unit.
But during the recent town hall at the library here—attended by a decidedly sympathetic group of mostly senior citizens—the questions posed by the crowd dwelled less on Powell and his positions on issues and more on Cantor's views. Some of those questions hinted at conspiracies.
In recent months, Saunders and Powell have tried in their attacks to steer listeners toward more-complicated political assertions that go beyond claims that Cantor is disinterested in their district's needs. One such assertion was that Cantor was behind the move to bury an exemption for lawmakers' spouses into a bill that cracks down on insider trading. Saunders has questioned in writing whether Cantor’s wife, a partner in an investment firm, would have been among those who benefited.
But at the recent town hall, many of the questions posed to Powell were focused more on Cantor’s ties to fellow Young Guns book author and conservative colleague Paul Ryan--the House member from Wisconsin who is now Mitt Romney’s running mate. One woman asked why it was that a political action committee run by former Cantor staffers had pumped money into primary campaigns to “push his young guns into Congress” and defeat an elder Republican.
Powell also was asked to discuss his view of whether Cantor wants Boehner’s top House GOP job as speaker. Powell was happy to go along with this theme, suggesting that if this were a play about Julius Caesar, then Boehner would be Caeser and Cantor would be Brutus.
“It’s the absolute blind-ambition pursuit of power for himself,” Powell said. “I mean, there’s no question that’s what he is after. There’s no question he wants John Boehner’s job.”
Members of the Cantor team, for their part, say the efforts of Powell and “his consultant”—referring to Saunders—to gain traction for their nearly broke campaign by appealing to a more-national audience does not have any effect on Cantor’s own strategy. They say Cantor plans to hold more district events and work a door-to-door grassroots campaign.
“Wayne Powell would not know the truth if the truth walked up and shook his hand,” Cantor political consultant Ray Allen Jr. said when pressed about such things as the Powell campaign’s assertions there were benefits sought for Cantor’s wife in the insider-trading bill. “Repeating the same old lies over and again does not make them true.”
As for complaints that the venue of their upcoming debate was selected to give Cantor a friendly crowd, Allen responded, “The Chamber of Commerce is a respected organization, and the chambers in Virginia routinely host debates.”
Meanwhile, Saunders says that given polling evidence that many district voters view Cantor negatively, he is unable to understand why Powell is being treated as an “afterthought” by Washington Democrats. “I am from the hillbilly school that believes officers should be fired upon at the beginning of any engagement. If we can raise about [$700,000] more, Cantor will be history.”
But even Powell recognizes there might not be enough Democrats in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District to deliver him a victory, and he realizes some Republican voter help will be needed in his uphill fight. “This was designed to be an incumbent-protection district—plus nine,” he explained while sitting in the library following the recent town hall. He predicted that if he defeats Cantor, it likely would be part of a “a split ticket”—meaning that Obama would still likely lose the district—because “there’s a lot of animosity toward the top of the [Democratic] ticket.”
“But Republicans aren’t evil people. I just think there have to be more people that care more for this country than just pulling a lever that says 'R,' " Powell said.
A few moments earlier, just outside the entrance to the building, a library staffer had approached Saunders and other Powell staffers to tell them they must remove their mock “for sale” real estate signs that bear Cantor’s name from the library grounds.
“We have to be bipartisan,” explained the staffer.
“You mean nonpartisan, right?” asked Saunders. He got no immediate direct answer.
Pulled aside later, the library staffer did explain that he meant “impartial.” But in this congressional district, one might certainly be left to wonder.