RICHMOND, Va. — Republican voters in five Virginia congressional districts choose nominees Tuesday for a fall election they hope will be a rebound from their 2008 trouncing.
But in at least one marquee race, they face a dilemma in picking a nominee moderate enough to win in November but conservative enough to avert an independent spoiler candidate from the right backed by energized tea party members.
Polls open at 6 a.m. for Republican primaries in the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th and 11th U.S. House districts and close at 7 p.m. There are no Democratic nomination contests on Tuesday's ballot.
The most-watched is the 5th District where seven Republicans compete to challenge first-term Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello.
The GOP has considered Perriello a usurper since he defeated Republican Rep. Virgil Goode by only 727 votes after a six-week recount in 2008. And since taking office, his support for President Barack Obama's health reform and clean energy legislation have put a bullseye on him as a clear Obama proxy. [See where Perriello's campaign cash is coming from.]
State Sen. Robert Hurt has powerful advantages in the crowded field because his legislative district spans about one-fifth of the congressional District, and he has raised by far the most money of the candidates.
But should Hurt win, he's guaranteed a challenge from Jeff Clark, a Danville businessman with strong support from members of several tea party organizations active in the rural, central and Southside swing district.
"I'm in the race if Robert Hurt wins, and it looks right now pretty much like a foregone conclusion that he will," Clark said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday.
Should any of the other candidates prevail, Clark said, he would sit out the race.
If the moderate-to-conservative Hurt wins, having Clark flank him could drain away enough support from the right to give Perriello a second term.
That leaves conservatives to ponder whether to unify behind the establishment candidate in Hurt, despite his 2004 vote for a state tax increase that infuriated them, or an untested potential spoiler.
"The tea party is about to be challenged in this election. There's going to be pressure on them to decide whether to support the Republican front runner ... or whether to stand on their principles," Clark said.
In the 2nd District, Virginia Beach businessman Scott Rigell has advantages, notably a rare primary endorsement from Gov. Bob McDonnell, a longtime family friend.
Rigell has raised nearly $1.3 million so far. A rival, Benito "Ben" Loyola Jr., has also topped the $1 million fundraising mark, but most of his money is loans he made to his own campaign.
In the 1st District, incumbent Republican Rep. Rob Wittman faces a challenge from Catherine Crabill. She accuses Obama and most elected officials of treason and, in her failed 2009 legislative race, exhorted supporters to bring about change "at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box." [See which industries are giving the most to Wittman.]
In the 8th District, little-known candidates Matthew Berry of Arlington and Alexandria's Patrick Murray, vie for the right to challenge 10-term Democratic Rep. Jim Moran in the heavily Democratic inner suburbs of Washington, D.C.
And the 11th District pits Republican rivals Keith Fimian and Pat Herrity, a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The winner will try to deny freshman Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly a second term. Fimian is attempting an encore after losing to Connolly two years ago.