POLITICS

Cantor to debate challenger in Virginia congressional race

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Photo - House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Getty Images)
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Getty Images)
Politics,Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Eric Cantor, the Virginia congressman who rose to the No. 2 leadership spot in the House, is facing an aggressive Democratic challenger this fall who accuses Cantor of abandoning his conservative ideals.

Cantor, the House majority leader, has been the face of young conservatives on Capitol Hill for years, and his congressional district, encompassing a large portion of central Virginia, has been a Republican stronghold dating back to the early 20th century.

Despite his re-election edge, Cantor has agreed to his first campaign debate in a decade and will square off Monday night against challenger Wayne Powell, a retired Army colonel and Chesterfield County lawyer who believes he can expose chinks in Cantor's armor this election.

Congress' popularity is at an all-time low, and the Democrat is hoping to make the election a referendum on GOP leadership. Cantor has also faced criticism within his own party after he voted to raise the debt ceiling, and Tea Party leaders even considered putting up a primary opponent against him.

Powell has embraced the Tea Party and his campaign ran ads during the Republican National Convention on Fox News courting fiscal conservatives. He has also enlisted the help of well-known Democratic strategist David Saunders, who is largely credited with leading Sen. Jim Webb's victory over heavily favored Republican incumbent George Allen in 2006.

"Cantor exemplifies everything I despise," Saunders said. "We're preaching a message that Republicans, a lot of them, like Eric Cantor, they've abandoned the principles of Republicanism."

The University of Virginia Center for Politics, which evaluates congressional races, rates Cantor's district safe for Republicans. Yet, Cantor has engaged Powell on a number of occasions, including publicly attacking Powell's convention ads. He also agreed to a debate with Powell that C-SPAN will broadcast.

"We were glad to accept," said Ray Allen, a consultant to Cantor's campaign. "On Monday, Congressman Cantor will discuss his plans to get America's economy going again and especially his proposal for a 20 percent tax cut for small businesses to help them create and retain new jobs."

With his high profile on Capitol Hill, Cantor's popularity back home has dropped. Just 25 percent of Virginians have a favorable view of the House leader, though he's always been more popular in his own district. Cantor consistently garners 60 percent of the vote against what until now has always been token opposition.

Cantor is also well-funded. He's spent $5 million so far and has $2.1 million more on hand. Powell has pulled in just $259,000 and already spent half of it.

"Why he chose to debate, maybe he's feeling a little vulnerable," said Kyle Kondik, who monitors House races for the Center for Politics. "But there's not a lot of outside indicators that he is."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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