Wayne Powell says he doesn't necessarily think U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor is evil — just arrogant, misogynistic, power-hungry and egomaniacal. That, in a nutshell, is why Powell has devoted a year of his life and nearly $100,000 to a scrappy campaign aimed at unseating the Republican House majority leader from Henrico County.
Powell, a Democrat, has built his campaign on aggressive criticism that's extreme even by today's standards. The campaign proudly operates CanCantor.com, which, topped with an illustration of Cantor getting showered in $100 bills includes a "name calling contest" that invites submissions of creative Cantor insults. It scattered "for sale" signs tagged with Cantor's name and office number around the district. During a face-to-face debate held earlier this month by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Powell, unpolished and prone to interrupting himself, worked up a sweat waving his arms while he painted his opponent as a Republican extremist who's holding the country hostage for the benefit of his corporate backers.
"I think Eric Cantor is so concerned about his own power and wealth that he's forgotten about his district and the people he's supposed to represent," says Powell, who's never run for office. "And I'm not being negative, I'm describing him. He is all of these things."
Powell, a 62-year-old lawyer and retired U.S. Army colonel is fond of saying Cantor can be bought by special interests; another line in the campaign is: "He screwed us, and us is pissed." Powell also has brought Cantor's wife into the fray, criticizing her and her former employer, New York Private Bank and Trust.
Powell and his supporters are convinced that Cantor, part of the powerful cadre of self-described young guns in the national GOP, is vulnerable. But is Powell's ferocity combined with Cantor's unpopularity enough to give the Democrat a realistic shot at victory?
Political observers across the spectrum are blunt with regard to Powell's prospects: Virtually everyone outside of his campaign says he doesn't have a chance. He's being derided by his Republican opponents as delusional and has been left to fend for himself by his party, which considers Cantor's seat unwinnable, declining to commit any national funds to the race. The 7th District, which stretches from western Richmond into Culpeper, is solidly Republican. Cantor won his last election in 2010 by a 25-percent margin.
"It's still a predominantly Republican district and you have an incumbent with sizeable resources; it would be unprecedented for a Democrat to win this district," says Daniel J. Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond. "The Democrats nationally may want to see Cantor get a bloody nose, but if the party really believed Powell could beat Cantor, he'd have $6 million in his pocket right now — he doesn't."
It's more like Powell's campaign is cash-starved. Powell raised $260,000 — 38 percent of which came out of his own pocket — compared with $6.2 million raised by Cantor, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
But Powell and his campaign find hope in two places.
First, they're encouraged that Cantor has bothered to engage Powell. Staff members in his office almost seemed excited about two GOP campaign mailers that attack Powell as a "job-killer" hell-bent on crippling small businesses with high taxes. Likewise, the campaign points to last month's debate as being the first time Cantor agreed to publicly go head-to-head with a challenger in 10 years.
Second, polls show Cantor, like most sitting members of Congress, isn't held in particularly high regard by his constituents. It's the primary reason that well-regarded political strategist David "Mudcat" Saunders — who advised John Edwards during his 2008 presidential campaign and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner during his 2001 gubernatorial bid — signed on as Powell's strategist.
An independent poll by Public Policy Polling last month found that across the state only 24 percent of voters said they have a favorable opinion of Cantor; 40 percent said they have an unfavorable opinion.
To Powell, it's simple logic. "There's nobody else to vote for," he says, "and if they don't like him, it's kind of silly to vote for somebody you don't like."
Powell's opponents say that kind of thinking is, to put it gently, unintelligent. Even if the poll is accurate, they say dissatisfaction doesn't translate to votes.
"I mean look, they have to have some glimmer of hope that they can hang on to," says Chris LaCivita, a Virginia Republican strategist close to the Cantor campaign. "I'm sure Powell is at times a very rational person. … Rational people who are embarking on something irrational need something to convince them they're not crazy and this poll is basically that crutch for them.
"Really, I feel bad for the guy."
As for the suggestion that Cantor is taking Powell's challenge more seriously than previous races, it simply isn't the case, say LaCivita and the Cantor campaign. Cantor's spending so far is on par with previous election cycles. Cantor has always run television advertisements and, according to one source, his decision to debate this year was made prior to Powell emerging as the Democratic candidate.
It was instead a reaction to across-the-board criticism of his decision not to debate his opponent in 2010, Rick Waugh, who was deemed unstable by the Cantor camp. Waugh sent a man dressed in a chicken suit to interrupt Cantor's campaign events and had to be physically restrained in Cantor's presence twice, according to the source.
"I find it very strange that we were criticized when we didn't debate and now we're being criticized for agreeing to debate," says Ray Allen, the Cantor campaign's senior strategist.
According to Allen, Powell's campaign has succeeded on only one front: offending Cantor.
"Mr. Powell and his campaign practices are deeply offensive," Allen says. "It is not common at all for politicians to attack family members. It is not common at all for politicians to use crass profanity in their appeals to voters. … Can you imagine Mark Warner or Tim Kaine calling their opponent a bastard, saying they want to ruin him and soliciting bullets so they can kill him? Can you imagine that?"
Powell and his campaign make no apologies. "I don't consider it negative," Powell says. "This is who he is. I'm not going to run away from it. It is what it is."
But the tone of the campaign is raising questions even among Democrats. Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic strategist, wonders if Powell is being well served by his rhetoric. "The polls show that people are unhappy with Eric Cantor," Goldman says. "They're already unhappy with Eric Cantor. We need to give them a positive alternative."
With or without a chance at actually winning, Powell too stands to benefit from the name recognition that comes with challenging a big-name Republican such as Cantor. Like nearly all candidates engaged in an active campaign, Powell speaks about his future only in sunny certainties that assume victory ("When I'm in Congress next year …") — but he says he will consider a future run if, hypothetically, this year doesn't pan out.
"I'm not naive," Powell says. "I know this is an uphill battle, and I've been facing those since I grew up in Church Hill and Highland Park. I've done all right so far." S
Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, Style incorrectly reported that Wayne Powell called U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor "a bought and paid for bastard." Powell's campaign manager, Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, made the statement. We regret the error.
UPDATE: Ralph Stanley and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, campaigned for congressional candidate Wayne Powell in Ashland, Va. on Oct. 24. Here's video from the event.