Sixth District: It’s time for new blood in Congress

Story by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

Sam Rasoul forced the Sixth District Democratic Party to live up to its name.

It had been 10 years since the party had even tried to challenge Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte in the Sixth, after his 40-point win over then-Roanoke mayor David Bowers in a race that had seemed at the outset like one that the Dems could compete in and win. And so it was that every two years I would call up the late David Layman beginning in January or early February and ask him some version of, Do you have anybody in mind for November this time around?

Rasoul jumped the gun on everybody, beginning his ’08 campaign in January of 2007, realizing what nobody else had seemed to catch on to, namely that you don’t unseat a well-heeled incumbent by getting somebody on the ballot in June and hoping for the best five months later.

In the intervening 22 months, Rasoul has been the hardest-working political candidate in the country, hands down. It’s to a point where the guy just shows up at my office once or twice a week, “just passing through,” he usually says, on his way from Dayton to Lexington, or Harrisonburg from Lychburg, or Roanoke from Strasburg, and he thought he’d see how things were going in Waynesboro.

A 27-year-old self-made small businessman from Botetourt County, Rasoul is not your typical Democrat, which is to say that he actually is your typical early 21st century Democrat. A fiscal conservative who evokes images of Mark Warner, Rasoul has made a name for himself among fellow Democratic conservatives with his call for a massive overhaul of the tax system in Washington and his staunch opposition to earmarks that even the incumbent Republican can’t say that he backs.

Which isn’t to say that Sam, Sam, He’s Our Man is anything more than a darkhorse candidate next Tuesday. The race apparently isn’t interesting enough for the pollsters to be bothered to give us a snapshot, though I think we can assume that the recent flurry of activity from the Goodlatte campaign, which debuted a TV ad last week and has their man working hard and heavy on the trail through Election Day, isn’t a sign that Goodlatte felt like he had so much money in his warchest that he might as well spend some of it to make sure that he still could in a pinch.

I’m really grasping there, as you can tell. The only poll rendering we have to go on is a Survey USA poll from mid-August that had Rasoul down basically 30 points. To hazard a guess that the race is even in the 15-point range at this point would be risking blatant boosterism at its worst.

“The reality is that the Sixth District is one of the most safe Republican districts because of its composition,” said Bob Denton, a political-science professor at Virginia Tech and a political analyst for WSLS-NBC10 in Roanoke, the biggest TV market in the Sixth. “Goodlatte has positioned himself well – with constituent services, and he is something of a policy wonk, if you can forgive the use of that term. He really does try to go into more policy-substantive things, agriculture and high-tech, and partnering with Congressman Boucher on several initiatives. So he really has had more of a balanced approach, less controversial, although of course he has voted on the social issues with Republicans,” Denton said.

All things considered, then, on balance, “it would take a tremendous amount to overcome Goodlatte at this point,” Denton said.

One thing about not having poll numbers to frame the race for us does to us is it makes it hard for us to get a handle on what we think will end up happening on Election Day. And part of me wonders how what else is going on this Election Day with the race for president and the United States Senate might impact down ticket. Democrat Barack Obama is running essentially even with Republican John McCain at the top of the ticket in the Sixth, and I’ve seen internal polls suggesting that Democrat Mark Warner could draw 60 percent of the vote in the Senate race in the Sixth, though those numbers are from back in the early summer, and I’m sensing at least some tightening there.

That said, it is possible that the same tightening that I am feeling in the Senate race in the Valley could have a positive effect on Rasoul’s campaign at the bottom of the ticket.

“Out on the streets, things are phenomenal. People are so upbeat,” Rasoul told me yesterday. “I think the fact that we’ve had a positive campaign for two years, we’ve talked about the issues and really given a new voice to positive politics, positive retail politics, is really paying off. We’re starting to see the support on the ground really swell.”

I’m wondering if there might not be some of that mood in favor of change that we’re seeing pushing the presidential race in favor of Barack Obama at play in the Sixth. Rasoul has a sense to that effect.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people who’ve said, I’ve been a Republican my whole life, and never again. It’s just a changing time here. I guess the dirty little secret is that this isn’t a Republican district. It tends to be more conservative, but there are lots of persuadable people if you’ve got the right message,” Rasoul said.

The message is not a problem. Even newspapers that have endorsed Goodlatte have given Rasoul his props on the message front, and he surprised me, if not a lot of other people as well, in getting two major endorsements, from The Roanoke Times and The (Staunton) News Leader. The question that we won’t know the answer to ’til Tuesday is, Can a twentysomething Democrat sell a conservative-leaning congressional district on his message almost exclusively by going viral?

“The reality is that I don’t win, it’s the people who actually win it for me,” Rasoul said. “I feel as though we’ve touched enough people and been able to spread our message enough for us to have an infrastructure of supporters, and now in crunch time, when people are wondering, Who should we vote for? and are looking for answers, there are so many people in every community who are Sam supporters who are able to answer those questions, to vouch for Sam. And that is a key,” Rasoul said.

“I believe in the word of mouth, I believe in retail politics. And I realize that I can’t win or lose this election over the next few days. It’s been the past two years that makes all the difference,” Rasoul said.

He has me convinced. A vote for Sam Rasoul is a vote for fiscal common sense in Washington, D.C., for tax fairness and spending restraint, for positive action to get more Americans into health-care plans that they can afford, for cleaning up Capitol Hill, for keeping our nation strong and safe.

And for one thing that we can take to the bank. Sam Rasoul will work hard for us.

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