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Richmond, Va. — Cantor, who switched from his Washington suit and tie to an open collared shirt, posed for pictures with supporters, listening to their advice and concerns. Known for his mild manner and genteelness, Cantor, 49, is soft spoken with a trace of southern accent he acquired growing up in Richmond. When talking to voters and supporters, Cantor presented himself first and foremost as their local congressman, abandoning Capitol Hill lingo and any sign of his top position in Republican congressional politics.
“This is a district that has a common sense conservative philosophy,” Cantor said in the interview. Invoking the Republicans’ mainstay theme, he explained that residents of Virginia’s 7th district want lower taxes and less regulation, and support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. But this safe district is witnessing, for the first time in over a decade, some real politics. Cantor’s aggressive Democratic challenger, Wayne Powell, a lawyer and former Army officer, has succeeded in injecting interest in the race — one sign of which is his success in getting Cantor to agree to a public debate.
The October 1 debate gave Powell an opportunity to lob some zingers at his veteran rival, accusing Cantor of being “so removed from reality” that his idea of small business is a hedge fund. Powell also accused Cantor of responsibility for the upcoming sequester that will lead to a steep cut in government spending across the board.
Cantor’s perceived lead remains strong despite the attacks. “We ranked the seat at ‘safe Republican’ and haven’t seen anything to change our mind,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which rates congressional races based on their competitiveness. Skelley acknowledged that Powell is “more than just a guy in a shirt” and that he is seen as one of the strongest challengers Cantor has met. But the makeup of the district and Cantor’s standing weigh heavily in favor of the incumbent, he said.
In deigning to face Powell directly, Cantor is likely looking beyond the district race. A strong showing would help him maintain his leadership position in Congress. “To defeat Powell — and to win big at the same time Republicans preserve their majority — would be affirmation of Cantor’s leadership, a pointed reminder to Speaker John Boehner to avoid turning his back to the Gentleman from Virginia,” wrote local columnist Jeff Schapiro in the Richmond Times Dispatch.
At the Republican Roundup event, Eric Cantor gift baskets were promised as prizes for raffle winners. The basket included a copy of “Young Guns,” a book by Cantor, Paul Ryan, who is now the GOP’s vice presidential candidate, and Republican Kevin McCarthy of California. The book lays out their platform for a fiscally conservative Republican party. A major win by Cantor in his district could help usher in another term of Young Guns politics in the House, meaning less compromise on spending and unbending insistence on large budget cuts and large tax cuts.
Cantor’s real adversary this year may be Congress itself. Many see him as that institution’s face at a time when the body is held in rock-bottom regard. Public approval of Congress, according to the latest Gallup poll, has reached an all time low, with only 10% of Americans viewing the institution favorably.