U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will debate a Democratic candidate before a general election for the first time in a decade Monday. His last debate was in 2002 against a former “Dukes of Hazzard” star nicknamed Cooter.
The nationally televised debate, hosted by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, will provide a national platform for Mr. Cantor’s opponent, first-time candidate Wayne Powell, a lawyer and retired Army colonel, to increase his visibility. He badly trails Mr. Cantor in fundraising and name recognition in the long-shot bid.
Mr. Cantor hauled in more than $6 million through the first half of the year, compared to $260,000 for Mr. Powell.
“We’re the underdog, and we relish that role,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a longtime Democratic strategist advising Mr. Powell’s campaign. “After all, a new, fresh, upstart candidate is not supposed to beat Eric Cantor — the House Majority leader — and all his millions.”
Indeed, Mr. Powell faces an uphill climb to actually knock Mr. Cantor out of his seat in the 7th District, which runs from western Richmond and Chesterfield and Charles City counties up to Culpeper County. In his six successful congressional campaigns, Mr. Cantor has received, on average, about two-thirds of the vote. He has dipped below 60 percent only once, when he got 59.2 percent in 2010.
The Republican’s last debate in a general election campaign was in 2002 against former Georgia congressman Ben “Cooter” Jones.
But for a seat that essentially has been non-competitive for the past decade, there has been a significant amount of gamesmanship and sniping between the two camps thus far.
Mr. Powell’s campaign has scattered “For Sale” yard signs complete with Mr. Cantor’s name and office number throughout the district. It also has accused Mr. Cantor of advancing a congressional financial disclosure bill with a carve-out for family members that would benefit his wife Diana, chairman of the Virginia Retirement System Board of Trustees and a partner in the investment firm Alternative Investment Management LLC.
“Wayne Powell would not know the truth if the truth walked up and shook his hand,” said Ray Allen, a top strategist for Mr. Cantor. “During the redrafting, a sectional reference was inadvertently changed, and when that was brought to our attention, we fixed it with lightning speed. The facts on this are clear when the error was discovered.”
In any event, the Powell campaign is working to effectively marshal its resources. Its first ad ran throughout the district about once an hour on Fox News during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
The sniping continued last week when Mr. Cantor’s camp lambasted Mr. Powell for failing to timely file a financial disclosure form, which Mr. Powell’s campaign dismissed as a simple mistake that has been rectified. The Powell campaign then delivered five years of Mr. Powell’s tax returns to the Richmond Times-Dispatch and tried to put the onus back on Mr. Cantor to release more of his own information.
“Eric Cantor says 7th District voters want disclosure, and we agree,” Mr. Saunders said. “He says he’s not [releasing them] because he’s not legally forced to do so. What about the ethics of transparency?”
Mr. Allen, though, scoffed at the request.
“His response when he gets caught is, ‘Oh, I want Eric Cantor to release his taxes,’” he said. “That strikes me as a silly diversion.”
But Mr. Saunders said if all goes according to plan with their campaign, the “true Eric Cantor” will be laid bare before the entire country.
“After this campaign’s over, if we’ve done our job, Eric Cantor can forget about taking John Boehner’s job, because the true Eric Cantor will be exposed, not just in the 7th District, but in America,” Mr. Saunders said.
The debate, sponsored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, is set to take place at CarMax headquarters in Richmond at 7 p.m. Monday and will be carried live by C-SPAN.
• David Sherfinski can be reached at email@example.com.
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