Virginia is one of the most hotly-contested states in this year's presidential election, which makes political outreach to federal workers in the region all the more important. Some Democratic campaigns think they have the votes of most federal employees in the bag, but it's more complicated than one might think.
There's been no shortage of Republican rhetoric about shrinking the government — even eliminating entire agencies — during this year's presidential race. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney epitomized the argument during a speech on the campaign trail after he won the Michigan GOP primary in February.
"I'm going to deliver on more jobs, less debt and smaller government," Romney said. "We're going to hear that day in and day out, more jobs, less debt and smaller government."
It goes beyond rhetoric, though. Republican leaders want to extend a pay freeze for government employees and make them contribute 5 percent more to their pensions. These proposals haven't gone unnoticed, especially by federal employee labor unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees.
Federal workforce feels like 'an ATM'
Tom Webb, president of the AFGE Local 3615, sits down to talk presidential politics at the Juke Box Diner in Northern Virginia on a recent afternoon. He's retired now, so he has time to sip coffee under the neon lights of this classic diner on a weekday afternoon.
The AFGE represents more than 600,000 federal workers, and many members are frustrated by Republican efforts to reduce compensation for federal employees, Webb says.
"We seem to be like an ATM machine for this Congress," he says.
That's been a recurring theme from Republicans. In Romney's economic plan, the former Massachusetts Governor argues he can reduce the deficit by nearly $50 billion dollars by bringing federal compensation, including benefits, in line with the private sector.
Webb, who worked at the Social Security Administration for 38 years, bristles at some of what he's heard from Romney about protecting taxpayer.
"Well we're taxpayers too, you know, and we contribute to the economy," Webb says.
Dems combatting fallout from Obama pay freezes
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who has represented Northern Virginia for more than two decades, acknowledges the federal workforce is more diverse than portrayed.
"Many people have the misimpression that virtually all federal employees vote Democratic. That's not the case," he says. "Now, blue-collar federal employees tend to vote Democratic."
Moran believes Democrats are expanding their appeal beyond those blue-collar workers during this election cycle because Republican proposals represent an onslaught to the federal workforce.
Then again, the president hasn't necessarily come off unscathed with federal employees, given the pay freeze he put in place two years ago. Then, earlier this year, the president asked Congress to allow him to streamline federal agencies. Republicans in Congress never gave the president that tool, so he didn't implement a plan to consolidate agencies.
Still, Moran expects more government workers to vote for Democrats in November than in the past, "just out of survival instincts," he says.
GOP sees inroads with local federal employees
But that's not how the GOP sees it. Republicans see their best chances for success in the D.C. region with the many employees that work for the Pentagon and the Northern Virginia-based contractors that depend on military spending. The failure of the Congressional "super committee" established last year to cut the debt set up a process called sequestration that takes effect in January.
Without intervention from Congress, the Pentagon's budget will be cut by hundreds of billions of dollars during the next decade.
Barbara Comstock is a Romney campaign co-chair in Virginia and state delegate representing a Northern Virginia district that's home to many defense contractors. Clad in a royal blue 'Romney for President' t-shirt, she explains that her neighbors are worried, and they blame President Obama.
"President Obama would gut our defense at the same time that he wants to massively increase taxes on northern Virginia," she says. And the fear isn't just among multi-billion dollar defense firms, she adds.
"The defense industry is very intricately involved with our high-tech industry, and a lot of small businesses and spinoffs and growth in our economy come from our high-tech industry," she says.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) believes the pending defense cuts, coupled with the federal pay freeze, will make many government workers and contractors in the area hesitant to support the President for a second term.
"The only place the Obama Administration has made any cuts have been freezing federal employees' [pay] year after year after year," he says. "So I think we've seen this administration fail with regard to federal employees."
In his defense of federal employees, Wolf parts ways with his party when it comes to rhetoric — and policies — surrounding the federal workforce.
But his argument is one the Romney campaign is pushing in the region.
Among the ranks, skepticism of both sides
Of course, many federal employees will consider more than their own paychecks or pensions when they head to the polls. In an era of bitter partisanship and, at times, infuriating gridlock in Washington, many voters are wary of the claims made by candidates in both major parties.
One of them, Pentagon engineer Chuck Dorcey, has been with the Department of Defense for three decades and is eligible for retirement. Over lunch at his quiet home in College Park, he explains why he's dubious of what he's heard from politicians on the stump.
Dorcey has been hesitant to cash in his pension, he says, partly because he's skeptical the benefits promised to him will still be there when he leaves. While he's not advocating for a pay cut, it only makes sense, Dorcey continues, that Congress should reexamine federal pensions — including his own — as lawmakers try to tackle the federal budget.
"There are going to be cuts to Medicare, renegotiation of Social Security, and why would civil service retirement be exempted?" he says. "The pain's got to be shared all the way around."
Dorcey is tempted to vote Libertarian — a protest vote, he says.
"The international forces are going to overwhelm whatever promises our politicians think they can make this year," he says. "I don't think they can make good on any promises they want to make."
That kind of cynicism about the political process makes campaigning even more complicated for all candidates in the region. When then-Senator Obama won Virginia in 2008, it ended more than 40 years of Republican dominance in Virginia presidential politics. This year, the Commonwealth's federal workers and contractors could determine whether 2008 was a fluke or whether President Obama is here to stay.