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Last Hired, First Fired?

The most endangered Democrat from the class of 2008.

Aug 2, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 43 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Fork Union, Virginia

Last Hired, First Fired?

Tom Perriello at a town hall meeting in Fork Union, Virginia, August 2009.

Photo Credit: AP, Steve Helber

In Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, freshman incumbent Tom Perriello won his seat by the slimmest margin of any Democrat in 2008. If Republicans do well in the elections in November, this seat will almost certainly be one they win.

Perriello’s challenger, state senator Robert Hurt, knows this better than anyone. “The Fifth District is one of those races that if [the Republicans] can’t win, we’re going to have a real hard time replacing the speaker, Nancy Pelosi,” he says. He refers to Perriello as the “poster child for Nancy Pelosi’s policies.”

With a few exceptions early in his term, Perriello has been a reliable supporter of the Democrats’ legislative agenda. He voted for the health care reform bill, cap and trade, and the stimulus. He calls his vote for the stimulus bill a “no-brainer.”

“Because the Republicans insisted on taking the job-creation parts out of [the stimulus], we’ve been able to prevent a depression but not yet have a recovery,” Perriello says, as we approach a dollar store in Fork Union. The congressman is on a “Main Street tour” to see how businesses are coping in tough economic times. I press him about the high unemployment rates President Obama said the country would avoid if the stimulus became law. “If the Republicans had put patriotism ahead of power we would have gotten a better stimulus,” he says. “Instead, we got what we got.”

Perriello, 35, has a youthful energy that benefited him in his first campaign and has earned him the moniker “the hardest working man in Congress.” “If he’s had a day off, I haven’t noticed it,” says Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Perriello’s birthplace and the district’s population center.

Perriello acts the part, wearing a plaid oxford shirt with no tie and the sleeves rolled up, Obama-style. Hands on his hips, he listens to constituents with a detached, academic look. There are no hand-to-shoulder, “I feel your pain” moments as he speaks with unemployed constituents and struggling small business owners. Perriello is unemotional and serious, and even those who disagree with him say he is genuine.

“He’s a good guy,” says Barbara Tocci, a sales associate for James River Real Estate in nearby Scottsville. “I think he’s sincere.” Tocci displays the Gadsden flag, a Tea Party favorite, outside her office and was active at local town hall meetings in the last year. But “he voted for the stimulus, and we didn’t want it,” she says. “You can’t ignore the people you represent.”

Hurt, who comes from the small town of Chatham southwest of Charlottesville, says Perriello ignored his constituents on the health care bill, too. “The people of the Fifth District made it clear in the town halls that Perriello attended,” Hurt says. “They did not want any part of [the health care bill].”

“He voted with Nancy Pelosi and not with the people,” Hurt adds.

Associating Perriello with a liberal Democrat like Pelosi is an obvious move for Hurt. Voters in the district don’t always vote for Republicans, but they are generally conservative.

The district gave George W. Bush healthy majorities in 2000 and 2004 but voted for Democratic governors in 2001 and 2005. Republican Bob McDonnell won back the area in the 2009 gubernatorial race. Longtime congressman Virgil Goode was elected in 1996 as a Democrat, but he became an independent in 2000 and a Republican in 2002. His party switch and his increasingly conservative voting record mirrored a political shift in the district.

Then in 2008, Perriello defeated Goode by 727 votes, even as John McCain was carrying the district by 3 percentage points. Although unsuccessful, the Perriello and Obama campaigns nevertheless energized blacks and Charlottesville liberals.

Now, as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in 2010, Perriello must rely on his superior organization—his campaign has six offices around the district—and his ability to far outspend his opponent. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Perriello has raised more than $2.3 million, with congressional liberals like George Miller of California helping bring in donations from the Democratic establishment. Hurt, by contrast, has raised only $771,000.

The high volume of cash flooding in indicates how desperately Democrats want to maintain the seat, in the face of the expected Republican wave. But despite his financial lead, Perriello has the disadvantage of being associated with the hated big-spending Congress. This time around, the motivated voters are not college students but fiscal conservatives. 

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