How Virginia’s First District Could Be The Pickup No One Saw Coming
It’s been over two decades since he retired from the Navy, but Captain Norm Mosher is ready to answer a new kind of call to public service.
“I’m running because I’m seeing how Congress is dysfunctional – it’s not working at all,” he declared to a crowd of supporters as he accepted his party’s nomination at its congressional convention in June. “Through my life I’ve gained experience, knowledge, and know-how on leading teams to meet overwhelming challenges. I’ve answered my country’s call for service before, and I’m answering it now.”
Soft-spoken and genteel, Mr. Mosher might seem like an outlier among politicians in this age of shutdowns, default threats, and brinksmanship. It’s an image that may resonate especially well in a district that’s already been scarred by the ideological crusades and partisan flame-throwing that have come to define this Congress.
Mosher’s indictment of this Congress and its failures is especially poignant in Virginia’s 1st district, which is a defense-heavy region that is home to more than 100,000 government workers. The 1st district has suffered two body blows from Congress since the last congressional election, in the form of the government shutdown and sequestration budget cuts. Tens of thousands of workers were furloughed during the three-week shutdown, often without back pay, while the local economy has been squeezed after the forced sequestration cuts resulted in the furloughs of tens of thousands of Department of Defense employees. All told, the people in the district lost some $650 million in income as a result of the budget cuts and shutdown, while their congressman condemned the result of the gridlock but did nothing to stop it.
But now Norm Mosher is hitting the trail to tell people that things don’t have to be this way.
Having worked as a professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 1980’s, Norm Mosher can remember a time when things were better in the halls of Congress. “I saw compromise between legislators, thoughtful debate, constructive amendments to bills, and negotiations in good faith,” he told me. “That ethic’s totally disappeared from the House. I think the only way to change it is to change the characters of the play.”
His opponent, Rob Wittman, is one of those characters the House can do without. “He’s a nice fellow,” Mosher says of Wittman, the incumbent Republican congressman who has held the seat since 2008. “But his record is a lack of leadership. When it comes to these manufactured disasters, he’s gone, ‘Isn’t it too bad,’ and then tried to shift the blame to the President.”
It’s a pattern that’s taken place in scores of Republican-held districts throughout the nation. With each crisis that John Boehner’s House of Representatives cooks up, from the debt default scare in 2011 to the ensuing failure to avoid sequestration to the government shutdown last October, Boehner’s enablers have mastered the art of deflecting and diluting blame from voters. In every standoff, these representatives will go on TV, bemoan the fact that Congress is broken and ask rhetorically why the President can’t lead – all while working behind the scenes to prevent up-or-down votes and scuttle amendments that could re-open the government with no strings attached, or honor the full faith and credit of the United States without any partisan kickbacks.
In fact, this pattern of obfuscation was played out to a T during the government shutdown by none other than Rob Wittman himself. As House Republicans declared that no bill to keep the government open would pass unless it also defunded the president’s health care law, Congressman Wittman took to television to proclaim his support for a resolution that would keep the government open, with no strings attached … if only such a resolution could be brought up for a vote in the House.
But no vote could be brought to the House floor without Boehner’s approval, thanks to the decision of Rob Wittman and others to give Majority Leader Eric Cantor veto power over any motion to bring a no-strings-attached spending bill to the floor for a vote. This move prevented a “clean funding bill” that would have kept the government open without any wrinkles or conditions, saving the jobs and salaries of hundreds of thousands of Americans … 100,000 of whom live in Wittman’s own district.
It would have been simple for Wittman to lend his support to a discharge petition that would re-open the government. Instead, he voted 12 times to shut it down, choosing to lament the gridlock on TV and in official statements rather than defy his party leadership. In a choice between supporting John Boehner’s leadership and fighting for the economic security of his district, he chose John Boehner.
The consequences of the failures of Rob Wittman and a handful of other Republicans to stand up to the likes of John Boehner, Ted Cruz, and other shutdown hard-liners have been devastating to several congressional districts that are home to significant numbers of government workers. And the fates of each of these congressmen, and especially Rob Wittman, depend on whether Democrats can find nominees who will hold them to task.
In the 1st district of Virginia, at least, Democrats have found their candidate. Norm Mosher has won enthusiastic endorsements from local officials and it’s easy to see why. The candidate has a biography that makes him a dream challenger for Democrats as the party seeks to uproot entrenched Republicans in unlikely places.
One of the earliest volunteers to fight in Vietnam, Norm Mosher rose to the rank of Captain through 26 years of service in the Navy, earning three medals for his service in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. After his retirement from the Navy he became a staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee, responsible for analytical oversight of $25 billion of the Department of Defense’s budget. In 1990 he started a consulting company that specializes in shipbuilding and ship propulsion research. He’s also served as a town councilman in Irvington, Virginia, while being on the board of a nonprofit organization to fight human trafficking.
It’s a glittering resume that Democrats everywhere should be celebrating. But aside from the glowing welcome given to Mosher by the local Democrats who know him best, the reaction from national Democrats has been surprisingly tepid. New York Congressman Steve Israel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has announced a $43.5 million string of ad buys targeting 36 congressional races. Virginia’s 10th district, held by retiring Republican Frank Wolf, caught the attention of the DCCC; the 1st district did not.
I asked Norm Mosher what he would say to national Democrats to convince them that the 1st district is a real pickup opportunity. “I’m not going to the D-triple-C,” he replied, “until I’ve raised at least six figures.” Stellar fundraising numbers will be the first concrete sign that Rob Wittman is in the fight of his political life. In the meantime, Mosher says, the race is competitive thanks to the Congressman’s own record.
Virginia’s 1st district was won by Mitt Romney, who took 53 percent of the vote in 2012. That partisan balance presents a challenge for Democrats, but by no means an impossible one. The district has been trending Democratic, Mosher points out, as the demographic changes that revolutionized Virginia’s politics are beginning to be felt in the northern half of the district, particularly the Manassas area. And in a terrific development for Democrats, a Libertarian candidate has made the ballot and threatens to siphon right-wing votes from Wittman.
In 2013, the libertarian gubernatorial candidate took 6.5 percent of the vote – more than enough to make the difference in a close race. To capitalize on this opening, Democrats will need someone who is more than a likeable face with a D next to his name. Fortunately, Captain Norm Mosher is not just another generic Democrat.
And thanks to a seven-year voting record, Congressman Rob Wittman is no generic Republican, either.
He’s an officeholder who has consistently enabled far-right politicians to dictate the antics of his party, a congressman who speaks out in public against the shutdown but participates in the legislative maneuvering that brings it into existence. With every vote he casts to make John Boehner the Speaker of the House, Rob Wittman reinforces a leader who answers not to all Americans or even to all Republicans, but rather to the far-right Tea Party base.
Rob Wittman has no problem saying Congress is broken. But a representative like Wittman who will decry a broken Congress with every chance he’s offered while undermining votes to restore it as a functioning institution is not an innocent and helpless bystander. Norm Mosher’s biggest campaign priority will be making sure that people of the district understand this.
It’s easy to imagine pollsters and media consultants in Democratic national headquarters looking over Excel spreadsheets and dismissing the 1st district, saying Wittman’s poll numbers are too strong to budge. But how strong will they be after an ad campaign points out to voters what Wittman has done to them in Washington? How many of the 100,000 government workers and their family members will go to the polls to help save Wittman’s job after hearing how little he did to help them keep theirs? It would be a worthwhile experiment for the DCCC to devote at least token resources to the district over the next few weeks, just to see how invulnerable Rob Wittman really is.
When the long list of policy differences between the candidates is pointed out, the numbers might see even more movement. Even the voters of conservative districts favor immigration reform and minimum wage hikes, issues Mosher has promised to push. Polls consistently show that voters would favor a candidate who would advance these issues rather than quietly table them, as Wittman’s majority is wont to do.
Norm Mosher owns these issues and the candidate is only one ad buy away from letting the voters know it. Come November, he could be riding an anti-incumbent wave as Wittman struggles to explain his votes to an electorate that continues to pay the price for them.
In every congressional election, there are one or two shockers. An incumbent on no one’s radar is swept away, or comes shockingly close to losing despite facing a broke and unknown challenger. The opposing party is often left wondering what might have been if they had paid just a little attention to the race, maybe running some radio ads or sending in operatives to spruce up the ground game.
In retrospect, it all seems clear: their candidate had momentum, the incumbent was overconfident, the situation on the ground made the election a prime pickup opportunity. Even a slight investment from the national committee could have swung those four hundred votes. If only they’d known!
The 1st district of Virginia has all the marks of becoming one of this year’s surprises. Democrats already have a first-tier candidate to put the election in play. And if national Democrats don’t think there’s a race here, it’s time they woke up.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.