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Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has long epitomized a safely entrenched incumbent.
He is a popular and skilled retail politician who has bucked the conservative trend of his largely rural and economically challenged 9th district by keeping the national Democratic Party at arm's length.
But this year Boucher may face his toughest race since early in his 14-term career representing the southwestern "Fighting Ninth," prompting CQ Politics to change the rating of the race from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic. His Republican opponent is likely to be state House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, who is the best-known and most seasoned challenger to step forward in years.
The big question is whether Boucher can once again parlay his popularity and seniority into victory -- this time in an environment in which voters have a very dim view of Congress and Democrats are expected to lose seats in the first midterms of Barack Obama's presidency. Obama has never been popular in the culturally conservative and economically populist district.
"If the race is about Rick Boucher, he'll win it in a heartbeat," said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee who served in the House with Boucher for 14 years. "But if the race is about Obama, [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] and the Democratic leadership and the theme 'If you want to change Congress, then you have to change your congressman,' then he's in a tough race."
Even though Boucher has won at least 59 percent of the vote in a dozen consecutive elections, Democratic officials say they're not taking this year's race for granted.
"We're going to take this race very seriously," said Tom Brewster, who heads the Democratic organization in the 9th district. "If it is or isn't competitive, we're going to treat it like a competitive race."
Boucher said he is approaching his 14th re-election campaign no differently than his previous efforts. He said he'll emphasize his work on economic development projects, including his Showcasing Southwest Virginia program and an expansion of broadband Internet services.
"Our efforts to improve quality of life in the district that I represent have been foremost in my work over the years, and we will be talking about these various aspects of that work," Boucher said.
But Republicans say Boucher's voting record no longer conforms to most voters' wishes in a GOP-trending area that was the top-performing district in the state for both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 (59 percent) and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) in 2009 (66 percent).
Griffith even conceded that for most of Boucher's tenure in office he has consistently represented the views of his constituents. But he said that has changed since Democrats gained control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
"In the past, while he may have not voted 100 percent with the way the district would want, he has pretty much voted most of the time with the way the district would want. But I think in the past two years he has just clearly not done so," Griffith said.