Drake Finds Herself in Democrats’ Cross Hairs

Posted October 15, 2008 at 6:43pm

As the nation’s economic tailspin throws more Congressional seats into play, eager Democrats are now casting their gaze toward the Virginia Beach-based 2nd district seat of Rep. Thelma Drake (R).

Drake eked out a 5,000-vote victory in 2006. Republicans see her triumph during a tough election cycle as a sign of strength, but many Virginia Democrats still view the 2nd district as “the one that got away” in an otherwise banner year that saw Democrats retake a key Senate seat in the commonwealth.

Despite some early interest by national liberal groups, the 2nd district had been seen as a second-tier contest by national pundits for much of the cycle. Former foreign service officer Glenn Nye (D) was viewed as a political neophyte when he entered the race — the 33-year-old’s biggest question mark was whether he could build up name identification in the district.

But a recent uptick in national party spending and a surrogate blitz in the past week has turned the southeast Virginia seat into a political hot zone in a state that was already seen as a key battleground in election 2008.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began airing an ad in the Virginia Beach area last week and has already spent $343,000 on the media buy, which blasts Drake’s support for “Bush economics” and touts Nye. The committee also has reserved nearly half a million dollars of airtime in the 2nd district leading up to Election Day.

Meanwhile, Nye is set to host House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) at events in Hampton Roads today, and he’ll also appear with Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D) at a news conference to discuss veterans issues on Saturday. Those events follow a rally that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) headlined at the Virginia Beach Convention Center on Monday, which drew about 10,000 supporters.

Some Democratic operatives trace the renewed national interest in the 2nd district to a late September poll conducted for Nye’s campaign that showed the challenger within 5 points of Drake, with the Congresswoman held to just 45 percent of the vote.

Nye was within single digits, Drake was under 50 percent and the national Democratic Party was looking for places where the alarming news on the economy would have negative repercussions for GOP incumbents.

Drake “has never been a strong candidate. … Her job performance ratings, which are the key to re-election, have never been strong,” said Democratic pollster Alan Secrest, who did polling work for Virginia Beach city official Phil Kellam (D), the man who lost to Drake in 2006. “She shouldn’t have won [in 2006], and she really lucked out because of a prodigious voter turnout effort” on the part of former Republican Sen. George Allen, who lost to Webb in 2006.

And as campaigns began to feel the fallout from the economic crisis, some Democratic strategists believed that Drake, a vocal supporter of President Bush’s foreign policies, would also be vulnerable to attacks that tied her to the economic policies that led to the economy’s collapse.

But Democrats in the 2nd district believe another incident helped push the 2nd district race to the forefront of discussions of battleground Congressional campaigns this month.

At the beginning of October, Drake held a news conference to respond to an ad produced by the political arm of the Service Employees International Union that hit her for votes on veterans health issues.

At that event, Drake raised questions about the role Nye played in a 2001 hostage rescue situation while he worked at the State Department.

The 2nd district is home to the world’s largest naval station at Norfolk, and Nye’s overseas service has been a major part of his campaign. He has mentioned his work to secure the release of an American hostage in Macedonia in campaign literature and in a television commercial.

One Democratic strategist said this week that ballot testing showed that when voters knew about Nye’s work with the State Department and his time overseas, his favorability rating and head-to-head numbers shot up. When Drake questioned the hostage rescue incident, Nye’s campaign seized on the opportunity to bring the issue to the forefront. Nye held a news conference on the subject and distributed copies of the award nomination he received for his work to free the hostage.

On Wednesday, Nye pointed to that incident — as well as attacks from the Drake campaign that have questioned whether he’s even a resident of the 2nd district — as examples of “a pattern of focusing on … negative personal attacks while we’ve been focusing on my background and practical problem-solving ideas.”

Nye added that “the recent downturn in the economy not only highlights the failure of those in Washington, it underscores the point that we need practical problem solvers.”

Drake campaign manager Corry Bliss said Wednesday that voters in the 2nd district know Drake as a Congresswoman who is deeply committed to veterans and someone who respects those who serve their country. Bliss said that Nye is the one who has “a real credibility issue” in terms of where he stands on issues like energy independence and the nation’s economic crisis.

“I think Glenn Nye wants to latch onto anything to get away from the fact of explaining his positions on offshore drilling or how he would have voted on the bailout bill,” Bliss said.

And as far as the DCCC dropping large amounts of cash in the 2nd district in the final weeks of the campaign, Drake campaign consultant Ray Allen said, “I think the DCCC has more money than sense.”

He pointed to a poll that Research 2000 conducted for the liberal Web site Daily Kos, which showed Drake with a 14-point lead, 51 percent to 37 percent.

Besides, Allen said, two years ago [the DCCC] “came in in June and dropped millions” and Drake still defeated a well-known local official.

“Thelma Drake is a proven and strong campaigner,” Allen said.