"We're all businessmen and businesswomen," the Democratic congressman told the well-dressed group over bacon and eggs at a private club here. "This bill is the largest single deficit-reduction legislation in American history. It's a good start in terms of sort of fiscal discipline, and it will bring down the cost of health care."
Many in the room nodded approvingly. Other parts of the district are not so welcoming. Many are predicting the freshman congressman will have a difficult time winning a second term in November.
Susan Lydick, 51, is not one of them. She approached Connolly after the Rotary speech.
"I just have to thank you for your vote. It's going to make a big difference in my life," said Lydick, a Fairfax psychologist. Both of her daughters have mental health problems, and one of her biggest worries is how they will get health insurance on their own. Under the new law, insurance companies can't deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions.
"The stories I've heard -- this is so common -- get drowned out in the debate," Connolly told her. "I bet your point of view about health care is a minority in the Bailey's Rotary," he said, referring to another club in a more conservative part of the district.
How Connolly's constituents in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., come down on health care will be key to the self-described pro-business moderate's chances for re-election.
The Cook Political Report rates the race here as one of the nation's most competitive, even though Connolly won't know who his Republican challenger is until after the primary election June 8. The reasons are many.
This is a terrible year to be an incumbent. It's even worse for Democrats. With a few exceptions, the president's party loses seats in Congress in midterm elections. And although Connolly, the former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, held elected office here for 14 years before going to Capitol Hill, as a first-term House member he is by definition considered vulnerable.
"This really is a bellwether," said Mark Plotkin, a political analyst for WTOP radio. "He's running scared. ... It's a reflection of the political mood in the country."
Not Your Typical Congressional District
The 11th District of Virginia is the most affluent in the nation, with a population that ranks near the top in college graduates. Unemployment here is about half the national average of 9.7 percent.
Years of rapid growth transformed Tysons Corner from a sparsely settled suburb in the 1950s to a burgeoning urban hub with more office space than Washington. High-tech companies and government contractors moved in, as did immigrants from Asia and Latin America. The influx of businesses and people also brought some of the nation's worst traffic congestion to a district where a local highway interchange is unaffectionately known as the mixing bowl.
Connolly opened his Rotary speech by talking about traffic. He was unapologetic about caging federal stimulus funds for a $5.2 billion extension of Washington's Metrorail to Dulles Airport. The political fashion in most places may be to complain about "big government," but that sort of rhetoric doesn't work for a lawmaker who represents more federal employees and government contractors than any other member of Congress.
"You're in the shadow of the nation's capital. Lots of people here have worked on the Hill or worked for government," Connolly said in an interview with AOL News. "They're very well-informed."
The tea party has its fans here. Interviews with residents revealed sympathy for its message of low taxes and smaller government. Yet few analysts expect the national movement to gain much local clout.
"These are not voters who are terribly receptive to what they may perceive as the anti-government rantings of the tea party," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University.
Perhaps, but Glenn Rounsevell, 88, a retired State Department employee from Falls Church, said this year he will vote the tea party way. "It's terrible," he said of the new health care law, "because of the amount of money that is being proposed and the way it was put together in secret." The conservative voted for Connolly in the past but said he won't do that again because the congressman is "a good public servant, he just has the wrong politics."
Politics has been a changeable thing here. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican, represented the district for 14 years until deciding to retire when the area's shifting demographics tilted too far toward the Democrats. George W. Bush twice narrowly carried the district before Barack Obama won with 57 percent in 2008.
But despite the district's preference for Democrats Jim Webb and Mark Warner for Senate and Tim Kaine for governor, the party's winning streak ended in November when it went for Republican Bob McDonnell for governor and Ken Cuccinelli, a tea party favorite, for attorney general.
"Democrats are and should be running scared because before the 2009 election, nobody was having this conversation about that district moving back to the Republicans," Rozell said.
Davis predicts "a barn burner" of a campaign. "Whatever you think of Gerry, this is a national race," he said in an interview with AOL News. "Some people may not be crazy about Republicans here, but they want to bring some balance back" to a Washington controlled by Democrats.
That's what Connolly's would-be Republican challengers hope to offer. Businessman Keith Fimian, a virtual unknown who waged a respectable but losing campaign against Connolly two years ago, hopes for a rematch. But first he must beat Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity, the son of an iconic local political leader whose name graces a parkway and a county building. Both say job losses, high taxes and runaway government spending are top priorities and blame health reform for exacerbating them all.
"A Republican with the right message and the right experience can win the district," said Herrity, who has dubbed the Democratic incumbent "Gerry Pelosi" for voting 97 percent of the time with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Ambivalence Over Health Care
Opinions on the new health care law may be as diverse as the northern Virginia district itself.
Stopping on her way into the Target store at Springfield Mall, community college student Sarah Thomas of Burke said she was "both for it and against it." As a 23-year-old without health insurance, "I do believe everyone should have health care. But at what cost to the taxpayers?"
A few minutes earlier, Sharon Mathis, a surgical nurse from Falls Church, talked about just that. "First of all, you're putting a tremendous burden on our children and our grandchildren financially and, secondly, I just don't think people have a right to demand that everybody have health care. I think it should be a personal choice," she said. As a Republican who has voted for Democrats in the past, Mathis said Connolly's "yes" vote means she'll choose someone else this fall.
But Hunter Herron, 71, an oil industry consultant from Gainesville who attended the Rotary meeting, has a different gripe about the bill. "I don't think it goes quite far enough," he said. "I would have liked to see the public option in there."
At Magruder's supermarket in Vienna, independent Patty Whelpley, 43, who home-schools four of her five children, was skeptical. "I'm all for universal health care, but I kind of feel like they rushed it through ... that they were pushing agendas other than health care," she said. Still, she praised Connolly. "Even though I didn't vote for him," she said, "I applaud that he at least took some time and thought about it. He was one of the last to hold out."
Connolly said he "struggled with the bill" and sought input from constituents on what he should do. He set up five tests -- would the bill protect Medicare, bring down costs over the long term, reduce the federal deficit, include a "meaningful basket of reforms," and significantly broaden access to health insurance? His answer: "yes" to all.
He could get dinged by confusion over the law's impact on federal employees -- most but not all can stay with their current health insurance. But Connolly predicted it "will be seen as very visionary and a good thing for the economy."
The congressman came to that conclusion under intense scrutiny. The Republican House campaign committee called his constituents last month to warn of "hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicare" if he voted for the bill.
On the other side, "there was a lot of pressure from the party to get in line and support the president," Rozell said. "He could read the political winds both ways."
Connolly waited until the day before the vote to announce his support.
"He played this theoretical Hamlet deal that was ludicrous," Plotkin said. "The theatrics were to show he was independent when everybody knew all along that he wasn't going to vote no. But it demonstrates his sense of vulnerability that he had to show he was not Obama's poodle."
Connolly's defenders reject charges of political calculation.
"Citizens want people to get things done, they want accomplishment, they want to move forward as opposed to simply obstruction," said Democrat Katherine Hanley, a former member of Kaine's Cabinet. "That's going to be an important issue in this race."
Connolly said he's confident his message will trump the GOP's to repeal and replace health care reform. "It just doesn't ring credible that the first order of business is you're going to actually repeal this transformative piece of legislation should you get the opportunity," he said. "It's seen for what it is -- vapid rhetoric to cover for the fact that they didn't have a better idea."
Emotions may trump ideas this November, though.
"The intensity is more with the opposition. The grassroots conservatives are going to turn out in big numbers -- they see an opportunity to flip Congress," Rozell said. "Connolly's a very adept and tough politician, but the fortunes may not be on the side of the Democrats this year."