McLEAN, Va. (AP) -- Two U.S. House seats in the northern Virginia suburbs are open for the first time in decades, but the races to succeed Republican Frank Wolf and Democrat Jim Moran are shaping up very differently.
A gaggle of state and local officials is looking to move up in the heavily Democratic 8th District, setting up a crowded, jump-ball primary in June that will produce a nominee expected to easily win the general election.
The 10th District race, on the other hand, is drawing only a handful of top-tier candidates, with clear front-runners on the Democratic and Republican sides who are looking to position themselves for what is expected to be one of the tighter congressional races in the nation in November.
The contrast is starkest on the Democratic side. In the 8th District, which includes the close-in Washington suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria and some of the most Democratic precincts of Fairfax County, 11 candidates have announced campaigns, including six current officeholders and a former lieutenant governor. In the 10th District, Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust is the only top-tier candidate in the race.
Experts see multiple reasons the 10th District race has drawn so few candidates, even though it is regarded as a top opportunity nationally for a Democratic pickup and is open for the first time since the 10th District was created in 1952. Wolf has held the seat since 1981. To start with, the 10th District simply doesn't have as deep of a bench for Democrats. The heart of the district is Loudoun County, where Republicans hold every seat on the Board of Supervisors. In addition, Foust got into the race before Wolf announced his retirement, and so was a front-runner when the seat became open.
“One big name can dissuade top-tier candidates,” said Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
The Democratic Party has done what it can, as well, to ensure that it doesn't face a bruising, costly primary in the 10th District. It opted to for a nominating convention in April, rather than a state-run primary in June, to determine the nominee in the 8th District. The 10th District's Democratic chairman, Charlie Jackson, said the decision was made to avoid an expensive primary, so that whoever emerges can marshal resources for what is sure to be a costly general election campaign, given the expensive Washington media market.
Farnsworth said Democrats can afford to call a convention without fear that it will be usurped by a narrow, far-left candidate. That is not a luxury held by Republicans, who must contend with a well-organized Tea Party wing of the party that has flexed its muscle in recent years, most notably in Virginia with the nomination of little known pastor E.W. Jackson last year for lieutenant governor. Jackson was badly beaten in November after running a quirky campaign.
Republicans in the 10th District opted instead for a so-called “firehouse primary," in which polling will take place at 10 locations throughout the district. The district sprawls from the wealthy, inside-the-Capital Beltway suburbs of McLean, through Loudoun and parts of Prince William counties, out west to Winchester and other parts of the state that are well outside the boundaries of metropolitan Washington.
The Republican front-runner, state Delegate and former Wolf staffer Barbara Comstock, is facing a serious challenge from Prince William County Delegate Bob Marshall, a favorite of the anti-abortion movement and who says he is the more conservative choice. Marshall can rally party activists -- in 2008 he nearly toppled former Gov. Jim Gilmore at a statewide convention for the party's U.S. Senate nomination. Several other lesser-known candidates have also announced they are running.
Marshall said he decided to get in the race when another conservative legislator, state Sen. Richard Black, opted against a run. Marshall said he is confident he can turn out his supporters in a firehouse primary, in which 10 locations have been set up for balloting during a five-hour window on April 26.
Comstock's campaign declined a request for a phone interview, but campaign manager Susan Falconer said in an emailed statement that Comstock “is the only candidate in the race who has a 100 percent winning record in her elections. Barbara always builds strong coalitions and out-works, out-raises and outclasses the competition.”
On the Democratic side, Foust campaign manager Shaun Daniels said Foust has an advantage because he entered the campaign before Wolf announced his plans to retire. After Wolf retired, there was speculation that other Democrats might jump in, but Foust reached out to those Democrats and found them eager to support him, Daniels said.
Daniels also acknowledged that the 10th District, from a purely political perspective, may not be as appealing to as many Democrats as the 8th because its makeup means that any winner will have to work hard every two years to keep the seat. While Wolf, a popular incumbent, won the district by wide margins, the district is now fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. In last year's gubernatorial race, Republican Ken Cuccinelli carried the district by just a one-point margin, 48-47, over Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
In the 8th District, where Moran is retiring after first winning office in 1990, 11 Democrats have announced candidacies to succeed him, including former Lt. Gov. Don Beyer, who last ran for office in 1997, Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille and several state legislators. The Republican side so far has drawn only Micha Edmond, a former Marine and congressional aide.
Toni Travers, political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, said none of the various candidates in the 8th has an obvious advantage over the other. She expects the race will come down to which candidate puts together the best organization. She said Democrats can afford a bare-knuckles fight in the June 10 primary because they hold such a huge advantage in the district in the fall.
“A Democrat will win in the 8th. It's just a matter of which,” she said.