By ALAN FRAM
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - For Rep. Scott Rigell and other Republican House freshmen, groundskeeper Beth Richardson is a dream voter. Sanitation truck driver Jerry Brown is a nightmare.
"For some reason I want to give this guy a chance," Richardson, 53, a supporter of President Barack Obama, said last week of Rigell, R-Va. "Something is telling me he wants to give both sides a chance."
Brown, 31, who like Richardson was grocery shopping near this city's beachfront hotels, said he's unsure if he voted in 2010. That year, tea party conservatives helped propel a GOP House takeover by electing Rigell and 86 other Republican newcomers. This time, Brown has a plan.
"Follow the D," he said, describing his hand gliding across the voting machine to other Democrats after selecting Obama.
The GOP's huge 2010 freshman class is facing voters for the first time since going to Washington, but now it confronts a tougher political climate. Most _ like their veteran colleagues _ are from safe, conservative districts and are virtually assured of re-election. About two dozen of the 82 freshmen running again are in competitive races, largely in the East and Midwest and often in moderate areas or new districts with less friendly or unfamiliar constituents.
The newcomers' fates hinge partly on who votes Election Day: people like Richardson who believe freshmen will work with the other side, or like Brown who are drawn to the polls by Obama. Either way, these races will play a big role in Democrats' uphill drive to gain 25 seats and win control of the 435-seat House.
Democrats have tried branding Republicans as champions of the tea party, which was viewed favorably by just 23 percent in a September Associated Press-GfK poll. Aware of that and of Congress' deep unpopularity, some first-term Republicans are portraying themselves as pragmatists; others are distancing themselves from Washington.
Tea party favorite Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., recently told the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago that his views are "more evolved" and that lawmakers should compromise more. A TV spot by Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., who also benefited from tea party support, shows him romping with his children but never directly says he is already in Congress. Rep. Robert Dold, R-Ill., who gets moderate voting scores from conservative groups and represents one of the most Democratic GOP-held districts, has an ad calling for "people before partisanship."
GOP freshmen seem safest in the conservative South. Of 22 Democratic-held seats Republican freshmen captured there in 2010, Democrats have credible challenges against just five: Rigell's, three in Florida and one in Texas.
In such secure regions, freshmen frequently flaunt their conservative credentials. A commercial for Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., shows a Bible and a smiling bride and groom as the announcer says, "Renee Ellmers shares our conservative values."
Democrats' best chances of ousting first-term Republicans are most numerous in New York and Illinois, with others in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Those in tough races include Illinois' Walsh, Dold and Bobby Schilling; New Yorkers Nan Hayworth, Chris Gibson and Ann Marie Buerkle; Florida's David Rivera and New Hampshire's Frank Guinta.
The tea party label "has become synonymous with extremism, obstructionism and the wrong priorities" and is "a recipe to lose re-election," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the House Democratic campaign committee.
Wes Anderson, a pollster for the House GOP campaign organization, said that focus is a loser for Democrats because it shows they "don't have an answer to the big issue: It is still the economy."
Virginia is pivotal in the presidential race and features a Senate race between two former governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine, that could decide control of that chamber. Bombarded by political ads, more Virginians are expected to vote in House races than two years ago, when GOP voters dominated.
Rigell won the 2010 GOP primary though the area's Hampton Roads Tea Party backed a rival. He picked up tea party support that November when he ousted freshman Democratic Rep. Glenn Nye. Rigell says he is not a tea party candidate, though Keith Freeman, chairman of the Hampton Roads group, says he and others from the organization are helping his campaign.
"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.