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DCCC Ready for Battle

Democrats See Drake as Big Target but Lack Candidate

It wasn’t long after her slim 2006 election victory that Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.) began to be regarded as a Member on the frontline of the emerging 2008 House battleground.

Adding fuel to that belief is the fact that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as well as outside interest groups, have been making lots of noise in her Virginia Beach district throughout this year.

But after Drake’s 2006 challenger Phil Kellam (D) withdrew his name from the contest in early July, and with no other Democratic candidate yet declared, some Old Dominion political watchers are wondering what exactly all the sound and fury is supposed to signify.

Democrats say a candidate is sure to emerge in a district that is so ripe for the taking, and they argue that the lack of a challenger right now has more to do with the fact that party officials are concentrating on the more immediate state legislative elections in November rather than on next year’s Congressional contests.

One Democratic name that several party sources have floated for the House race is state Secretary of Finance Jody Wagner, who ran in the 2nd district in 2000 but lost an open-seat race to Republican Ed Schrock, who served two terms. Wagner managed to garner 48 percent of the vote aginst Schrock and outraised him by a slim margin.

With $3.25 million in independent expenditures going into the 2006 race (including more than $1 million by the DCCC and more than $1.3 million by the National Republican Congressional Committee), fundraising prowess will be a key asset in the upcoming contest.

Kellam, who serves as the revenue commissioner in Virginia Beach, acknowledged Wednesday that Wagner’s name is being mentioned in Democratic circles. He called Wagner “a very attractive public official with a record of accomplishment” who has “a broad base of support.”

Wagner was on state business and could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but Marine Corps Maj. David Ashe, the 2004 Democratic candidate who lost to Drake in her first House campaign, said Wagner would make an ideal candidate in 2008 because she keeps her visibility and name ID high in the district and the state.

“She may be in a gubernatorial appointee spot for right now, but she still hosts a boatload of fundraisers and, when she’s not hosting them, when you see invites she’s on host committees,” Ashe said. “You can kind of tell she’s itching to get back in and that there’s something there for her.”

For his part, Ashe, who withdrew from the 2006 race when Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) tapped him that spring to serve as chief deputy in the state’s Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, said, “I have no plans to get hold of the [Democratic nomination in the 2nd district] for 2008. … [But] there’s something out there for me in the future.”

Another name that has been floated as a potential Democratic nominee in the second district is Henry Light, a lawyer and former Navy officer who resides in Norfolk and earlier this year lost a primary bid for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. In that losing bid, Light spent about $200,000 of his own money.

“I would run if I was felt to be the most capable candidate, the one most likely to win it,” Light said. However he said, “that’s sort of something that wiser minds need to sit down and figure out. … I have my notions of who I think would be the best candidate and I’m not sure if she wants to run or not. That’s Jody Wagner.”

And so with Drake now being targeted in a new ad campaign by the DCCC that highlights her recent vote against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization bill and at least a few Democratic names surfacing in the 2nd district, some Virginia political insiders are wondering why no one has yet taken the leap to challenge the two-term Congresswoman.

One national pollster said some indecision may stem from the fact that Kellam was expected to be on his way to a 2 or 3 point victory in 2006 before he lost by a little more than 4,000 votes.

“I think there’s some hesitation among Jody Wagner and some others about pulling the trigger,” the pollster said. “I think there was a sense that Phil couldn’t lose [in 2006], that it was an automatic win. That was a mistake from the get-go, it was a close race through-out. But I think some Democrats there are wondering if they can do what he couldn’t do. … This is a good example of a district where Republican turnout efforts, though principally on behalf of former Sen. George Allen (R), paid off.”

And Republican officials also are pointing to Drake’s 2006 election as the reason Drake is currently unchallenged.

Drake “won in one of the worst election cycles for Republicans in decades and this time around she’ll definitely be able to win again,” NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley said. The DCCC and outside interest groups “have touted her as someone that they are going to target from way back in January and as far as we can tell there’s nobody out there that will stand a chance against her. They haven’t even been able to find anyone to challenge her,” she said.

“Clearly the national Democrats are very interested in this race,” said Ray Allen, a consultant with Drake’s campaign. “ spent more money against Thelma Drake last year than any other Congressperson and we won.”

But Allen said there’s been a disconnect between Democrats’ “national party apparatus and the local folks in the district.”

Allen pointed out that the 2nd district, which is home to the world’s largest naval station at Norfolk, is one of the heaviest military districts in the country. As such, he said, the recent newspaper advertisement by attacking Gen. David Petraeus was “embarrassing to local Democrats. … These are not the type of people who are motivated by attacking the military.”

This cycle, Drake continues to be the target of national interest groups. This summer, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq included Drake as part of its “summer campaign,” staging protests outside her office and even having a volunteer follow her to several events with a video camera.

Meanwhile, the DCCC said it remains confident that Democrats will pick up a district that they have come so tantalizingly close to taking in recent cycles.

“Thelma Drake’s seat is a good pickup opportunity and we have been consistently holding her accountable for blindly following President Bush on everything from his failed Iraq policy to his opposition to children’s health care,” DCCC spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said. “Drake has been the subject of two of our ad campaigns this year because her voters deserve to know about her abysmal record on veterans’ and children’s health.”

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