VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — For Rep. Scott Rigell and other Republican House freshmen, groundskeeper Beth Richardson is a dream voter. Sanitation truck driver Jerry Brown is a nightmare.
"For some reason I want to give this guy a chance," Richardson, 53, a supporter of President Barack Obama, said last week of Rigell, R-Va. "Something is telling me he wants to give both sides a chance."
Brown, 31, who like Richardson was grocery shopping near this city's beachfront hotels, said he's unsure if he voted in 2010. That year, tea party conservatives helped propel a GOP House takeover by electing Rigell and 86 other Republican newcomers. This time, Brown has a plan.
"Follow the D," he said, describing his hand gliding across the voting machine to other Democrats after selecting Obama.
The GOP's huge 2010 freshman class is facing voters for the first time since going to Washington, but now it confronts a tougher political climate. Most — like their veteran colleagues — are from safe, conservative districts and are virtually assured of re-election. About two dozen of the 82 freshmen running again are in competitive races, largely in the East and Midwest and often in moderate areas or new districts with less friendly or unfamiliar constituents.
The newcomers' fates hinge partly on who votes Election Day: people like Richardson who believe freshmen will work with the other side, or like Brown who are drawn to the polls by Obama. Either way, these races will play a big role in Democrats' uphill drive to gain 25 seats and win control of the 435-seat House.
Democrats have tried branding Republicans as champions of the tea party, which was viewed favorably by just 23 percent in a September Associated Press-GfK poll. Aware of that and of Congress' deep unpopularity, some first-term Republicans are portraying themselves as pragmatists; others are distancing themselves from Washington.
Tea party favorite Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., recently told the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago that his views are "more evolved" and that lawmakers should compromise more. A TV spot by Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., who also benefited from tea party support, shows him romping with his children but never directly says he is already in Congress. Rep. Robert Dold, R-Ill., who gets moderate voting scores from conservative groups and represents one of the most Democratic GOP-held districts, has an ad calling for "people before partisanship."
GOP freshmen seem safest in the conservative South. Of 22 Democratic-held seats Republican freshmen captured there in 2010, Democrats have credible challenges against just five: Rigell's, three in Florida and one in Texas.
In such secure regions, freshmen frequently flaunt their conservative credentials. A commercial for Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., shows a Bible and a smiling bride and groom as the announcer says, "Renee Ellmers shares our conservative values."
Democrats' best chances of ousting first-term Republicans are most numerous in New York and Illinois, with others in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Those in tough races include Illinois' Walsh, Dold and Bobby Schilling; New Yorkers Nan Hayworth, Chris Gibson and Ann Marie Buerkle; Florida's David Rivera and New Hampshire's Frank Guinta.
The tea party label "has become synonymous with extremism, obstructionism and the wrong priorities" and is "a recipe to lose re-election," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the House Democratic campaign committee.
Wes Anderson, a pollster for the House GOP campaign organization, said that focus is a loser for Democrats because it shows they "don't have an answer to the big issue: It is still the economy."
Virginia is pivotal in the presidential race and features a Senate race between two former governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine, that could decide control of that chamber. Bombarded by political ads, more Virginians are expected to vote in House races than two years ago, when GOP voters dominated.
Rigell won the 2010 GOP primary though the area's Hampton Roads Tea Party backed a rival. He picked up tea party support that November when he ousted freshman Democratic Rep. Glenn Nye. Rigell says he is not a tea party candidate, though Keith Freeman, chairman of the Hampton Roads group, says he and others from the organization are helping his campaign.
"I've been to tea party meetings where they're screaming for his blood one moment and cheering for him the next," said Freeman.
Rigell, 52, a wealthy auto dealer who hadn't held elective office before, says he supports tea party calls for fiscal discipline but believes lawmakers must end gridlock.
"I'm just trying to do what's right for our country and find common ground, and I think my record reflects that," he told a dozen people lounging in lawn chairs last week at the Eastern Shore Harvest Festival, a gathering along the Chesapeake Bay in Cape Charles, Va., featuring crab cakes, steamed clams and sweet potato pie.
Rigell notes that independent voters like his opposition to holding Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt over his refusal to provide documents from the Fast and Furious gun tracking operation. He also cites a bipartisan Fix Congress Now caucus he helped form, and in 2008 even contributed $1,000 to Obama's campaign.
Democrat Paul Hirschbiel, 59, a former venture capitalist running against Rigell, says his opponent's record is hardly conciliatory.
Hirschbiel ads accuse Rigell of supporting "a radical Washington plan" that would gut Medicare and attack the middle class — a reference to Rigell's vote for the House GOP budget by Rep. Paul Ryan, the party's vice presidential nominee. Another spot attacks Rigell for co-sponsoring anti-abortion legislation defining life as beginning at fertilization, with a young woman saying, "Scott Rigell just doesn't share my values."
Hirschbiel and Rigell have long known each because their daughters are friends, and Hirschbiel put Rigell on the board of an educational organization he runs. Still, when they encounter each other at the Harvest Festival their greeting is polite but perfunctory. Both have run negative ads criticizing the other.
"He is in the habit of saying one thing here and doing something different in Washington," Hirschbiel said in an interview.
Rigell has reported raising $2.4 million, double Hirschbiel's total. Rigell has personally sunk $845,000 into his campaign compared to Hirschbiel's $37,000, though each may spend more. Labor and Democratic groups have bought around $500,000 in ads for Hirschbiel through last week, roughly five times what GOP and conservative organizations have spent for Rigell.
Seventeen races involving House GOP freshmen have each seen over $1 million in spending by political parties, conservative and liberal groups and other organizations through late last week, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That spending totaled $38 million, split about evenly between the two sides. Much more will be spent by Nov. 6, with Republicans likely benefiting most.
GOP freshmen in about two dozen tight contests have outraised their challengers by about $49 million to $27 million through June 30, the center says, reflecting the usual incumbent advantage. Nearly a quarter of the GOP money went to Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., an outspoken conservative and fundraising magnet in a close race.
Relatively few House freshmen have been defeated in most elections since the 1990s.
But of the 37 Democrats who arrived with Obama's 2008 election or just afterward, 22 lost in 2010, victims of the tea party rebellion against the president's health care overhaul. Freshmen Republicans who helped Newt Gingrich win House control in 1994 fared better, with just 12 of 76 losing in 1996 despite President Bill Clinton's re-election.
Rigell's district, which hugs Virginia's coast from Maryland to North Carolina, houses bases like the sprawling Norfolk Naval Shipyard and has throngs of military personnel and veterans. It's home to evangelist Pat Robertson, a contributor and friend of Rigell, and is considered to lean slightly Republican.
Even so, 1 in 5 voters are black and tilt reliably Democratic. The district backed the successful 2009 gubernatorial campaign of Republican Robert McDonnell, another Rigell friend. A year earlier, it split about evenly between Obama and John McCain and favored Democrat Mark Warner — a Hirschbiel friend — for the Senate.
Rigell is on the House Armed Services Committee and considers himself a staunch advocate for local defense-related jobs. Hirschbiel faults him for backing last year's debt-reduction bill, which set up a mechanism that threatens automatic defense cuts in January unless lawmakers derail them.
Rigell signed an anti-tax pledge from the conservative Americans for Tax Reform but renounced it, saying lawmakers need flexibility to raise revenue as part of debt-reduction efforts. He says he feels bound by pledges "to my wife and my faith, that's it."
"One needs to be careful about saying he's disavowing and actually doing something about that," said Hirschbiel.