Recapturing the Democrats' 2008 Magic

Freshman Democrat Tom Perriello won this Republican-leaning district in 2008 by defeating incumbent Republican Virgil Goode by less than 800 votes; he won primarily on the strength of Obama supporters. In his first year in office, Perriello has supported Democrats and President Obama on every major significant piece of legislation, including the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and health care reform.

Race of the Day What makes him different from other Democrats who have supported Obama's agenda is that Perriello, often dubbed one of the hardest working members of Congress, wore those votes on his sleeve. He did not shy away from his record and instead sought to explain to voters in his district why he took on the "delegate" role and voted for Obama's agenda. He's done so in town halls, by crisscrossing his district, and on the air. In the end, his principles, which are to the left of his fairly conservative district (except for its more liberal Charlottesville area), may cost him his job.

Perriello is being challenged by Republican Robert Hurt and third party Independent candidate Jeffrey Clark. Hurt beat out Tea Party favorites in a fractious GOP primary, but the anti-Perriello vote has seemed to coalesce around Clark. While Perriello and Hurt will face off in a series of televised debates in October, Hurt has refused to participate in early debates, even becoming the first person to skip out on the annual Senior Statesman Forum of Virginia, a debate in front of the district's senior citizens. Hurt has said he will not participate in a debate with Clark because he believes Clark is only in the race to siphon votes away from him.

Hurt, however, is in fact the frontrunner in almost every poll--though his margin may be difficult to quantify (recent polls have shown him leading by anywhere from 6 percent to over 20 percent), Because of this, national Democrats may cut Perriello off in order to save other, more competitive Democrats. But when talks in this vein became public, the DSCC told reporters that its internal polling had Perriello within striking distance of Hurt.

One thing is clear: it's hard to see a scenario in which Republicans can take over the House without picking off Perriello's seat. And this race is getting nasty. In recent weeks, the Perriello campaign accused Hurt's out-of-district staffers of being carpetbaggers. In response, NRCC flak Andy Sere posted the out-of-district addresses of Perriello staffers on Twitter, which may have violated Twitter guidelines. State-level bloggers like Ben Tribbett, who runs the influential "Not Larry Sabato" blog, demanded Sere take down the addresses and urged people to sign a petition demanding Twitter terminate Sere's account for violating its terms of use regarding the posting of private addresses. Virginia Democrats were quick to point out that Sere's actions were grossly irresponsible given that a gas line at the home of Perriello's brother was cut after Tea Party activists posted the address in an online forum.

Leading up to the election, look for Perriello to use his sizeable war chest to flood the airwaves with positive, innovative ads about himself, like the one in which he actually steps in a cow pie (below), and negative ads that will try to define Hurt as a friend of the lobbying community. These ads, along with Perriello's personal appeals, will attempt to blunt the national momentum that is at Hurt's back.



Hurt, on the other hand, will get support from outside groups funding anti-Perriello ads. Perriello is trying to make these groups a campaign issue, blistering Hurt for allowing the Chamber of Commerce to run ads attacking Perriello that may in part be funded by foreign money. In this district, such a nationalistic attack can work to Perriello's advantage.

Perriello has gained a lot of state and national acclaim for his energetic and fearless support of Obama's agenda, and even if he loses, there may still be a place for him within the state and national party structure. Should Perriello win in a most unfavorable environment, he may become one of the leaders in Virginia's Democratic Party, which lacks strong bench players. Talks of a gubernatorial run may begin.

But Perriello is the underdog in this race and is being discounted by more and more pundits. Silver lining for Perriello: he was an underdog in 2008 who was discounted by the same pundits, albeit in a more favorable election cycle for him. But he needs to reverse the momentum in this race soon if he has any shot at retaining this seat.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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