Drake Loss May Be Nye

Posted October 27, 2008 at 6:51pm

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — A week removed from Election Day and with Republican prospects for winning the White House seeming more grim, there isn’t much talk about Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) potential coattails.

But here in Virginia’s 2nd district, Rep. Thelma Drake (R) may be clinging to them.

The battle-tested two-term Congresswoman is fighting for re-election amid a political environment that appears increasingly toxic for Republicans and in a swing district that has trended toward Democrats in recent years.

To this point Drake has been considered favored to win — after all, she was heavily targeted in 2006 and narrowly won despite the national Democratic wave, defeating a local elected official from a well-known political family.

This year, she faces Democrat Glenn Nye, a 34-year-old former foreign service officer who has never run for office before and began the race as a complete unknown.

With Republican strategists increasingly anxious about the downballot effect of the presidential race and Democratic turnout efforts led by Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) White House campaign, whether incumbents like Drake can hang on will determine the size of the Democratic majority in the 111th Congress.

If she’s worried, Drake doesn’t show it.

She said she feels good about the race and that she’s holding her own on TV despite the onslaught of money from national Democrats to her opponent.

Drake has one big reason to be confident: The Navy’s Atlantic fleet is based here, and the population of active-duty and retired military personnel is around 300,000 — one of the largest concentrations anywhere.

“John McCain will win this district,” she said confidently in between mingling with donors at a small fundraiser Thursday evening at the Norfolk Yacht & Country Club. As for whether the Arizona Senator will win the Old Dominion — where polls have consistently shown him trailing — she said she can’t comment because she’s focused on her own territory.

But as the 50 or so attendees sipped cocktails and watched as the sun set on the Lafayette River, there was a palpable unease among the party faithful about the presidential race and McCain’s campaign in general.

Ed O’Neil, a retired Navy aviator who served in McCain’s sister squadron in Vietnam, admitted he’s better off when he’s not thinking about the elections and the current state of the race.

He and his wife, Susan — she was sipping white wine and he was drinking a Budweiser — said they were floored by the number of Obama yard signs they had seen while driving to the event through their old neighborhood in Norfolk, an area largely populated by affluent liberals.

They hosted a meet-and-greet for Drake over the weekend at their Virginia Beach retirement community, and they believe she will be fine on Election Day.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any problem there,” Susan O’Neil said. “But she always runs like she’s behind, which is the only way to run.”

Champion Door-Knockers

Drake’s campaign touts its grass-roots outreach as a key component in her ability to survive. Since April, the campaign has knocked on close to 75,000 doors and has had the most voter contact of any Congressional district in the country, according to tracking the McCain campaign began in June.

But based on anecdotal evidence Nye has seen on the campaign trail, he argues the voters of the district are ready for a change and that his ability to tap into Drake’s support in the military community will be key.

He knows McCain will do well in the area, and he touts his civilian service in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq as a way of reaching out to that population.

“Veterans identify very readily with my candidacy because they know I understand the challenges they face in the field and they know that when I talk about supporting veterans that it’s a very personal thing for me, having worked with soldiers out in the field,” Nye said.

He thinks few people will vote for Obama and then Drake but that, conversely, some who vote Republican at the presidential level will be more willing to pull the lever for Democrats downballot.

“I believe you will see a significant number of people that will vote for McCain and also vote for Mark Warner and vote for me. And that will make the difference in the race,” Nye said.

Nye often invokes Warner, the popular former governor and Democratic Senate nominee who is expected to win easily, as an example of the solutions-based governing model he would follow if elected. Nye will begin airing radio ads featuring Warner this week.

But for all of Nye’s talk about his background and outreach to the military community, the outcome of the race will likely have very little to do with him.

Retiring Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, knows Drake is “running against the trend, not this guy.”

Davis said he believes McCain will likely lose the district, but Drake can still weather the “Obama undertow” that he said Republican candidates face in urban districts that have a considerable black population.

“She can run ahead of the ticket,” he said. “I think she has her own base.”

Paying Attention or Skipping Downballot?

Drake’s district is 21 percent black. Virginia Beach accounts for the majority of the district, and it is the battleground that will decide the Congressional election.

Virginia Beach has long been a Republican bastion (televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University are based here)‚ but Gov. Tim Kaine (D) won the district in 2005 by 3 points. In 2006, then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) won the 2nd by the same margin over now-Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) as Drake was re-elected.

Aside from higher black turnout, the overall increased turnout in presidential years means there are less sophisticated voters showing up to the polls — especially when it comes to knowledge of other contests — which leads to an increase in straight-ticket votes.

Take for example Kyla Hurt, a gregarious 29-year-old originally from Jacksonville, Ill., who moved to Virginia Beach about five years ago.

A self-described artist, Hurt waits tables at the Cheesecake Factory in Virginia Beach as part of the 70 hours a week she works at several jobs to make ends meet.

A few years ago she was in a serious car accident. She didn’t have health insurance, and she’s still paying off hospital bills.

Hurt said she is undecided in the presidential race, but if the election were held now she would vote for Obama. She likes his calm and cool demeanor, which to her makes him seem more trustworthy.

“I just think we need change,” she said.

Still, she empathizes with McCain because of his military background and prisoner of war status. In Virginia Beach she has a lot of friends tied to the military, including her roommate, whose husband is deployed overseas.

Hurt is not typically political. She didn’t vote in the presidential primaries earlier this year. But she said there’s no question she will vote next week.

When asked about the 2nd district race she said she doesn’t know anything about Drake, and it isn’t clear what she will do on that portion of the ballot.

“I know what she looks like,” she said.

The problem for Republicans like Drake is that new voters, or voters who don’t show up to the polls consistently, will either vote a straight ticket or not vote in downballot races.

Two years ago, Drake survived a tough contest with Virginia Beach Commissioner of Revenue Phil Kellam (D). She won 51 percent to 48 percent.

Current internal polling shows Drake ahead but under the 50 percent mark, and Nye is within the margin of error. At this point two years ago, public polling showed Drake in a similar position, ahead but with less than 50 percent.

But the presidential race and the economic crisis are just two of the major differences from the previous cycle.

Veterans issues have been front and center in the campaign lately, with the candidates sparring over Drake’s votes on the new GI bill.

After initially voting against the legislation, she later voted for another version. Nye’s campaign has focused on the first vote as a way of trying to tarnish Drake’s image with veterans. Now the Congresswoman is attacking Nye and accusing his campaign of lying about her record.

On Friday, the district’s largest newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, endorsed Nye over Drake, despite backing her in 2006.

“Two years ago, Drake earned our endorsement based on her knowledge and our hope that she would be more independent,” the editorial stated. “Two years later, she has made few steps toward the center. … In this election, quite simply, Nye’s potential is a better bet than Drake’s performance.”

The editorial dovetails with much of Nye’s campaign message, which focuses on painting Drake as a partisan drone.

“People are just tired of that kind of politics,” Nye said. “The kind of politics that Karl Rove represents are the same politics that Thelma Drake represents, and that’s a divisive kind of party politics which people are really tired of.”

On a Navy Wing and a Prayer

At a wine and cheese reception in Chesapeake honoring local realtors Thursday afternoon, mortgage broker Mark Davis acknowledges that Drake’s survival depends on the economy and how much the “throw out the incumbents [mentality] is going to take hold.”

“I have every expectation that she’ll win,” he said, adding that Drake is very well-respected in the area.

A former realtor, Drake served nine years in the Virginia House of Delegates, representing a district that should have been difficult for a Republican to hold.

Dave Morgan, who is retired from the Navy, said he will “probably” vote for Drake but his wife will not.

At the presidential level he said he’s probably going to vote for Obama, explaining that his decision had a lot to do with the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the GOP vice presidential nominee.

It’s a change for Morgan, who is retired from the Navy and almost always has voted Republican.

“But this time, no,” he said. “McCain’s an old man.”

It’s statements like that that have loyal Republicans worried.

Hank and Stevie Giffin live just a few doors down from Drake in Norfolk and turned out to support her at last week’s fundraiser.

Hank Giffin, a retired three-star Navy vice admiral, doesn’t sound overly convincing when asked if McCain’s going to win Virginia.

“We hope so. We gotta hope. We need it,” he said.

After being prompted by a campaign aide, he makes a more forceful statement.

“I gotta believe it’s going to be McCain,” he said. “Joe the Plumber’s going to come through for us.”

Even if the celebrated plumber of the campaign trail doesn’t, maybe someone else will.

As the attendees file out of the fundraiser, one supporter tells Drake she’s praying for her.

“That is the most important part,” Drake said.