"I've been to tea party meetings where they're screaming for his blood one moment and cheering for him the next," said Freeman.
Rigell, 52, a wealthy auto dealer who hadn't held elective office before, says he supports tea party calls for fiscal discipline but believes lawmakers must end gridlock.
"I'm just trying to do what's right for our country and find common ground, and I think my record reflects that," he told a dozen people lounging in lawn chairs last week at the Eastern Shore Harvest Festival, a gathering along the Chesapeake Bay in Cape Charles, Va., featuring crab cakes, steamed clams and sweet potato pie.
Rigell notes that independent voters like his opposition to holding Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt over his refusal to provide documents from the Fast and Furious gun tracking operation. He also cites a bipartisan Fix Congress Now caucus he helped form, and in 2008 even contributed $1,000 to Obama's campaign.
Democrat Paul Hirschbiel, 59, a former venture capitalist running against Rigell, says his opponent's record is hardly conciliatory.
Hirschbiel ads accuse Rigell of supporting "a radical Washington plan" that would gut Medicare and attack the middle class — a reference to Rigell's vote for the House GOP budget by Rep. Paul Ryan, the party's vice presidential nominee. Another spot attacks Rigell for co-sponsoring anti-abortion legislation defining life as beginning at fertilization, with a young woman saying, "Scott Rigell just doesn't share my values."
Hirschbiel and Rigell have long known each because their daughters are friends, and Hirschbiel put Rigell on the board of an educational organization he runs. Still, when they encounter each other at the Harvest Festival their greeting is polite but perfunctory. Both have run negative ads criticizing the other.
"He is in the habit of saying one thing here and doing something different in Washington," Hirschbiel said in an interview.
Rigell has reported raising $2.4 million, double Hirschbiel's total. Rigell has personally sunk $845,000 into his campaign compared to Hirschbiel's $37,000, though each may spend more. Labor and Democratic groups have bought around $500,000 in ads for Hirschbiel through last week, roughly five times what GOP and conservative organizations have spent for Rigell.
Seventeen races involving House GOP freshmen have each seen over $1 million in spending by political parties, conservative and liberal groups and other organizations through late last week, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That spending totaled $38 million, split about evenly between the two sides. Much more will be spent by Nov. 6, with Republicans likely benefiting most.
GOP freshmen in about two dozen tight contests have outraised their challengers by about $49 million to $27 million through June 30, the center says, reflecting the usual incumbent advantage. Nearly a quarter of the GOP money went to Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., an outspoken conservative and fundraising magnet in a close race.
Relatively few House freshmen have been defeated in most elections since the 1990s.
But of the 37 Democrats who arrived with Obama's 2008 election or just afterward, 22 lost in 2010, victims of the tea party rebellion against the president's health care overhaul. Freshmen Republicans who helped Newt Gingrich win House control in 1994 fared better, with just 12 of 76 losing in 1996 despite President Bill Clinton's re-election.
Rigell's district, which hugs Virginia's coast from Maryland to North Carolina, houses bases like the sprawling Norfolk Naval Shipyard and has throngs of military personnel and veterans. It's home to evangelist Pat Robertson, a contributor and friend of Rigell, and is considered to lean slightly Republican.
Even so, 1 in 5 voters are black and tilt reliably Democratic. The district backed the successful 2009 gubernatorial campaign of Republican Robert McDonnell, another Rigell friend. A year earlier, it split about evenly between Obama and John McCain and favored Democrat Mark Warner — a Hirschbiel friend — for the Senate.