Focus | Perriello ’10: A safe bet? Hardly

Story by Chris Graham

We’re about a year away from the November 2010 elections, though you wouldn’t know that by watching local TV and seeing the wall-to-wall commercials telling you about what Fifth District Congressman Tom Perriello has been doing up in Washington.

First it was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with an ad in heavy rotation that has come under fire for the tagline at the end saying that the freshman congressman is “Wrong on Health Care, Wrong for Virginia” in apparent violation of federal campaign-finance laws. The new ad in heavy rotation has come from Americans United for Change, which is encouraging Fifth District voters who support health-care reform to call Perriello’s Washington office to thank him for his vote earlier this month on the House reform package.

The TV attention on the race got another boost this week with the coverage of one of Perriello’s seven – yes, seven, counting the third-party candidate – announced challengers in the ’10 elections, a Charlottesville-area conservative activist named Laurence Verga, who has the backing of conservative leaders in the Fifth in the early running for the Republican Party nomination against likely nomination-race frontrunner Robert Hurt, a state senator from Danville.

Perriello is obviously vulnerable, as any freshman congressman who won election by 727 votes would have to be considered to be. How vulnerable could be a function of how unified Fifth District Republicans are after what could be a bloodbath of a next few months on the way to the party nomination.

National Republicans seem to be coalescing around Hurt, who University of Virginia Center for Politics political analyst Isaac Wood thinks “having a Danville base could set up an interesting matchup with Perriello, whose base is in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area.”

“Perriello’s base happens to be in the part of the district where there is tremendous Democratic support. Hurt’s base is in the part of the district that is heavily Republican. That could be a marquee matchup,” Wood said.

The operative word being could – because some conservative Republicans in the district have been raising issue with Hurt because of his vote in 2004 for the Mark Warner-crafted budget reform that included a billion-dollar tax increase.

Which is part of the reason why there seems to be support forming around Verga, a Charlottesville-area fiscal conservative who has not held political office.

“I am campaigning on the motto, ‘Getting Washington Back on Track,'” Verga informs voters in a welcome message on his campaign website. “Those are not mere words, but a goal, a belief and a passion. In spite of the inevitable pressures from the party establishment and special-interest groups, I pledge that I will never be swayed from my core conservative beliefs.”

Hurt, in his October campaign announcement, is pushing his own conservative credentials. “As a conservative who has represented a significant portion of the Fifth District for the past eight years, I believe that now, more than ever, our district requires a proven conservative leader to serve as its voice in Washington,” Hurt said. “As I have during my time in Richmond, I will fight to promote small businesses and new jobs, I will fight against the runaway taxing and spending in Washington, and I will always be a strong voice for our commonsense conservative Virginia values.”

If Republicans can unify around one candidate next summer and next fall, Perriello, even as an incumbent, could be the one fighting the uphill battle. The Fifth, outside of Charlottesville-Albemarle, is generally a solid Republican district, for one, and two, Perriello will be going it alone in 2010, after winning on a crowded 2008 ticket that included Barack Obama at the top and Mark Warner running for Senate.

Wood noted that Perriello did outperform Obama in the Fifth in ’08, “but at the same time, there are many people who voted for Barack Obama who then also voted for Tom Perriello downticket. It’s those voters that Perriello will have to concentrate on to make sure that they go back to the polls in 2010,” Wood said.

“Many of those voters who came out in 2008 did not show up in the recent governor’s race,” Wood said. “Right now, Democrats seem to be less engaged and less energized. If that continues into 2010, that could be a big hurdle for Perriello.”

The race will have the full attention of the Democratic Party of Virginia. In a recent interview with VirginiaPoliticsToday.com, state Democratic Party chairman Dick Cranwell, unprompted, said the race that “everybody will be watching around here will be Perriello.

“Listen, he’s an exceptionally gifted candidate and congressman, and an exceptionally gifted campaigner. So I expect him to be successful next year. Is he going to have a fight on his hand with the Republicans? You betcha. Will he win? You betcha,” Cranwell said.

A lot has to happen between now and “you betcha.” Perriello will have to ramp up a re-election campaign while dealing with controversial issues like health-care reform, cap-and-trade, a possible second stimulus and who knows what else.



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