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Fight Returns for Boucher in Virginia’s 9th

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.” His opponent is likely to be state House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith (R), 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. Tom Davis (Va.), 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.

“Overall, the beliefs of the 9th district are definitely conservative, and Mr. Boucher has done an interesting job of portraying himself as representing those conservative values,” 9th district GOP Chairwoman Michelle Jenkins said. “But when you look at his voting record, you see that he does not reflect the conservative values that we do have here.”

Griffith and other Republicans have frequently criticized Boucher’s vote last spring in favor of cap-and-trade legislation. Republicans have said the measure, which has since stalled, would harm the district’s coal industry.

But Boucher and his allies said he used his clout during the legislative process to secure important provisions for the coal industry.

“By being part of the process, I was able to mold it and shape it and assure that it was very favorable to the coal industry,” Boucher said. “Before taking part in that process, I consulted with coal industry representatives here in Washington, and I was encouraged to engage in the process to modify the bill to obtain the most coal-friendly provisions that I could — and I was successful in doing that.”

Republicans are watching how Boucher votes on a final health care reform bill. Boucher was one of just 39 Democrats who voted against a House-passed version in November. Boucher declined to comment on the health care bill, saying that he needed to see the text of the final legislation.

There are ample signs Boucher and his Democratic allies are taking the race seriously. The Congressman has a well-stocked campaign fund, with $1.75 million in cash on hand at the beginning of this year, compared with $1.2 million two years ago and $830,000 four years ago.

That gives Boucher a huge financial edge over Griffith, who said he’ll begin fundraising after the state Legislature adjourns later this week. He’ll get some financial and logistical assistance from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which on Monday singled out Griffith for recognition in its “Young Guns” program.

As Griffith began to roll out his campaign late last month, Boucher’s camp moved quickly to blunt his momentum. Just one day after Griffith announced endorsements from local GOP legislators, Boucher’s organization brandished an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, which has a large membership in the mostly rural district. Two days later, Boucher announced the backing of a committee of local business leaders, including some coal executives. Boucher also has the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America.

“It’s clear from the start of the campaign that Rep. Boucher’s strong independent profile has garnered the support of key local groups and major business leaders, quickly demonstrating that the Republicans will have trouble gaining a base of support,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Every election year Republicans say they’ve found the perfect candidate in this seat, and every year Rep. Boucher proves that his district knows him, trusts him and believes in the results he’s achieved for them.”

Democrats are prepared to highlight deficiencies they see in Griffith’s 15-year voting record and the fact that he doesn’t technically live in the district: his hometown of Salem, near Roanoke, is just outside the district’s boundary.

“He’s not a resident of my Congressional district, so my constituents don’t know him. Neither do I,” Boucher said.

Members of Congress are not required to reside in their districts. Griffith noted the proximity of his residence to the 9th district and that its below-average population growth will require a major expansion of the district’s borders during the redistricting process in 2011. Griffith said there is no doubt his hometown will be included in a reconfigured 9th district.

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