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Rep. Scott Rigell: Maverick GOP freshman in the eye of a political storm

Obama is hitting Virginia Beach, Va., Thursday for a reason: It's one of the hottest political ad markets in the country. Its congressman, Scott Rigell, is out to change Washington's 'toxic mix of partisanship, no facts, weak ideas.'

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Mr. Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge is famous in Washington for holding at least 90 percent of congressional Republicans (and a handful of Democrats, besides) to a pledge to never raise taxes. Rigell, who signed the pledge when running for office in 2009, now disavows it. He turned on the pledge after realizing that closing tax expenditures (or tax breaks) without corresponding decreases in government spending counted as violating the pledge.

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“The agreement itself, with some degree of irony, prevents the very meaningful tax reform that we all seek,” Rigell says. In fact, about half of the candidates in the House GOP’s “Young Guns” program, which helps promising newcomers, have eschewed the pledge.

Some voters applaud this stand for conservative budget positions, while not drawing a red line on taxes. “I do think he can serve as a model,” says Pat Kelly, an engineer in Norfolk who plans to vote for Rigell. “Getting something done is better than getting nothing done.”

Democrats, however, say that Rigell’s talk of civility and bipartisanship is just talk.

“There’s nothing in the vote record that says ‘moderate,’ ” says Jesse Ferguson, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has targeted Rigell for an upset.

Challenger Hirschbiel, a long-time friend of Virginia’s perennially popular Sen. Mark Warner (D), says he was drawn into the race because of his belief in the power of investment in fields like education, infrastructure, and research and development, slated for sharp cuts under the Ryan or RSC plans. 

“It’s not just that they [the House] were getting nothing done because of partisanship,” Mr. Hirschbiel says. “It’s also because what the House was doing. The Ryan budget, I believe, is antithetical to the future of America – at least a strong economic future, particularly on education.”

Whether Virginia’s second district sends Rigell back for a second term will depend on factors such as fundraising and voter turnout. Hirschbiel, particularly, needs the Obama campaign’s efforts to drive voters to the polls, Professor Kidd says.

The race could also come down to who can win the sweat equity battle of old-fashioned, grip-and-grin politics. That’s where Rigell shines.

“Scott is also as good a retail politician as I’ve ever known,” says Joel Rubin, a political analyst in the Tidewater area with deep ties to Democrats. “He came out of the car business, where you’ve got to make relationships with customers and treat everybody like your friend."

In a July town hall meeting in Norfolk, Navy veteran Mark Stets, whose son was killed in Pakistan, unloaded on three high-profile GOP senators over Washington's failure to head off military spending cuts at year's end.

“My son didn’t die for the crap that you people are doing in D.C.,” he said. “Do you understand me?” The senators winced. But he offered a much different view of his freshman congressman, sitting nearby.
 
“He sells cars and cars are full of plastic these days,” he said. But, pointing toward Rigell, he added: “There is no plastic on that man.”

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