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SEALs’ District Is Battleground Territory

If the demise of Osama bin Laden has an effect on President Barack Obama’s re-election and other 2012 campaigns, there may be no district in the country where it will be measured more than in Virginia’s military-rich 2nd district.

The Virginia Beach-based seat is home to the elite team of Navy SEALs that took out the terrorist responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Obama narrowly carried the swing district, believed to have the highest concentration of active-duty military and civilian veterans, and voters there could be inspired to vote for him again next year.

“We have a lot of devoted patriots who really come out strong for elections, and they see the president as really strong now,” Sandra Brandt, the state Democratic Party’s 2nd district chairwoman, said on Tuesday. “This morning, and every place I went yesterday, all the conversations were about how proud the people were about what the president had done.”

The area where some of the country’s bravest soldiers are trained has proved to be a top political battleground and bellwether in recent cycles, and next year it is expected to feature competitive contests from the presidential to Congressional levels. It is Republican-leaning, but Obama carried it by 2 points in 2008.

Virginia Beach-based Republican consultant Brian Kirwin said it could “easily” go Democratic again in 2012, when Obama is expected to compete heavily in the area and freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R) is facing his first re-election.

“What I would suspect is in 2012 you’ve got Obama back on the ticket, all Democrats have to do is run a respectable candidate and Rigell is history,” Kirwin said. “It’s very military, not hard-core Republican. Before 2000, this district was owned by Democrats.”

But a Republican strategist said different issues, including health care, would make Obama’s path more difficult.

“At the end of the day, it would be hard to envision Obama’s numbers doing better in Virginia than they did four years ago,” he said. “Not only is turnout going to be a huge factor that could hurt the president, his poll numbers with independent voters are drastically different.”

Brandt said she has spoken with four potential candidates who are still in the early stages of deciding whether to challenge Rigell. Brandt did not disclose who they were, but the names being floated elsewhere include businessman Paul Hirschbiel, state Del. Paula Miller and former Rep. Glenn Nye, whom Rigell unseated.

After voting against a number of major Democratic items in his one term in office — and without Obama at the top of the ticket — Nye lost to Rigell by 11 points last year. In a statement to Roll Call, Nye declined to say whether he was considering another bid but noted that he was proud of the SEALs from his hometown of Virginia Beach and that he worked during his time in office to ensure they “had the facilities and equipment they need to protect our country.”

Democrats including Nye and now-Sen. Mark Warner swept the races up and down the ticket in 2008. Two years earlier, then-Sen. George Allen (R) lost statewide but carried the 2nd district, as did then-Rep. Thelma Drake (R), who went on to lose to Nye in 2008. Tim Kaine (D), who is running for Senate, won it narrowly in his 2005 gubernatorial bid, and in 2004 President George W. Bush won it by 16 points.

“As you’ll find in the last few cycles, the district in presidential years and even when there’s a Senate race on the ballot, it tends to follow the trend of the top of the ticket,” Kirwin said. “When Obama swept in with the wave, Glenn Nye got carried along. When Nye didn’t have him, he got swept back. The 2nd district really gets trended by what’s above on the ballot.”

The competitiveness of the district next year will in part depend on how the lines are reshaped in redistricting. Insiders said it will likely favor Republicans, but to what extent will not be known until the state Legislature continues map negotiations later this month.

Still, the district’s makeup, with veterans constituting 20 percent of the population, is not expected to change much.

Hampton Roads is the metropolitan area that includes the cities of Norfolk, Newport News, Hampton and Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city, and is also defined by the crisscross of waterways that help make it among the greatest natural harbors in the world.

The economy revolves around the defense industry, and, according to the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, seven of the 10 largest defense contractors in the world are located in the area.

Every military branch is represented, especially the Navy — along with nearby Naval Air Station Oceana, Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval base in the world.

“That impacts every fabric of our community in a great way. This is a patriotic area. You can’t drive through a neighborhood and not see American flags,” said Jason Miyares, an area native and political consultant for Rigell. “There are two things that dominate Hampton Roads: One is water, and two is the military.”

According to Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, the area also depends largely on tourism and agriculture, but it did not get hit by the recession the same way many other parts of the country did.

The Obama campaign also featured a stellar turnout operation there that helped him win 40,000 more votes than Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won four years earlier. However, Miyares said that even in a strong year for Democrats nationwide, Obama only narrowly won the district. And what helped carry Rigell into office in 2010 will likely help keep him in office for another term.

“Even though this is a military district, the economy was overwhelmingly on people’s minds” last year, he said. “I don’t think that’s going to change in 24 months.”