Story by Chris Graham
The Danville Register and Bee endorsement editorial put it well, I think. Noting that the paper hadn’t endorsed a Democrat since Virgil Goode was a Democrat, the editorial board relayed that it is changing course not because it is leaving Virgil Goode. “Virgil Goode,” the Register and Bee said, “has left us.”
That has become readily apparent the past two years, as Goode has moved from the far right wing of the Republican Party squarely into whackjob territory, making headlines with his self-generated controversy over comments about a fellow member of Congress taking his oath of office on the Koran and then most recently nonsensically blaming the financial crisis on Wall Street on a favorite political bogieman, illegal immigrants.
His opponent, Democrat Tom Perriello, is calm and steady in the firestorm in contrast. A homegrown candidate as a native of Albemarle County, Perriello, 34, isn’t the type to whip up the ideologues with rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims. He’s not afraid even to lay the blame for the ills of the day at the feet of his own party when need be. “We’re really focused on the ways that both parties have gotten us into this mess, and that what we need is as much a shift in generational leadership as a shift in parties,” Perriello said. “We see people who are very frustrated with their own Republican Party, people who are disappointed with the Democratic Party, and looking for folks who have been out getting things done, in the nonprofit sector, like I have, and in the business sector. That’s how we’re getting this turned around,” Perriello said.
Focusing on the diverse economy of the Fifth District, which stretches from Charlottesville and Albemarle County all the way to the North Carolina border, Perriello has strenuously advocated a renewed emphasis on economic development in Central Virginia and Southside, which is easier said than done given what has been going on in the district of late, from Charlottesville, which is bound to take a hit from the state budget cuts affecting the economic engine that is the University of Virginia, to the cities of Southside that have been losing their factories and the community-sustaining jobs that they’re taking out of town with them.
It’s that fresh approach to rolling up the sleeves and getting to work on solutions that has Perriello coming back from what had been an early 34-point deficit in the polls. “We were down by five touchdowns a few weeks ago, and now we’re within a field goal of winning this thing, and we think we’ve got a better ground game,” said Perriello, whose campaign made the move early on to open Perriello for Congress offices across the Fifth District to push direct voter contacts as the trademark of its effort. “We feel like we’re neck-and-neck, and it’s been even more exciting to see how that’s happened, which is he’s focused on the same old campaigns, with doctored photographs of me and false claims in his TV ads, and we’ve just ignored it and gone ahead with a positive agenda for jobs and the economy and getting back on course in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve been so impressed with the voters and how interested they are in solutions, how interested they are in that sort of politics, and how they’re rejecting that sort of fearmongering that we’ve seen in the past,” Perriello said.
But that said, it is not going to be easy for Perriello to make up the last few points, not by a longshot. “People have been voting for Virgil Goode for a long, long time. And someone like that is very tough to unseat,” George Mason University political expert Stephen Farnsworth said, pointing out the 400-pound political gorilla in the Fifth District that is Goode. “Voters have been voting for the name Virgil Goode, for him and his father, for decades. It’s really hard to see how he’s ousted from the seat unless it’s just such a huge Democratic year that even safe Republicans like Goode are unable to fight back,” said University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Cordel Faulk.
Goode has been around, and there’s something to be said for just being around when it comes to what appears to be a tough political race this fall. Perriello is sensing a new narrative on Goode, though, in his interactions with voters. “It’s gotten easier and easier to break away as people realize the gap between the Virgil they know and the Congressman Goode that’s up in Washington,” Perriello said. “Congressman Goode is the one who has taken one and a half million dollars from lobbyists and special-interest groups. Congressman Goode is the one who has protected big oil and voted against negotiating cheaper drug prices and against the New GI Bill. And those just don’t make sense in Southside Virginia. So the guy who used to be very much in tune with Southside, he’s just gotten very much out of touch with the values of our area. That’s made it easier for us to focus on a positive campaign,” Perriello said.
“What people feel here is a much stronger loyalty to their families than to any member of Congress. So if they believe a member of Congress isn’t getting it done on jobs, isn’t getting it done for our communities, that’s it. I think that’s what people have seen, is a lack of results,” Perriello said.
Virginia Tech political-science professor and WSLS-NBC10 political analyst Bob Denton is picking up on that new narrative himself. “Congressman Goode has made some comments that have caused some controversy and generated some embarrassment related to the issue of immigration, and that has become a very sensitive issue, and he has made some rather strong comments about Mexican flags and Mexican restaurants, and taking the oath on the Koran. This has all been somewhat embarrassing for many of the citizens in the district who talk about how he perhaps he has moved further to the right and to the extreme than the Virgil that they recall,” Denton said.
The conventional wisdom, Denton said, is that Goode will eek out “52, 53 percent of the vote” and hold his seat. “But no doubt about it – if there’s a Barack Obama tsunami across Virginia, if he wins by five or more points here, Virgil may be among the casualties of that kind of win for Obama,” Denton said.
Which is to say, there are a few different ways Perriello can get to 50 percent-plus-one. And that’s good news for the Fifth District, which is in desperate need of a change in leadership if things are going to get moving in Central Virginia and Southside again.