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The Battle for America 2010: In Virginia 5, Tea Party Complicates GOP Challenger’s Campaign

Incumbent Democrat Tom Perriello is in critical danger, but Republican Robert Hunt has run afoul of local tea party activists due to his past support for tax increases.

by
Mary Beth Niemeyer

Bio

August 22, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Even at this stage of the campaign, Hurt runs without the approval of tea party groups, members of which pride themselves on being furious at both parties. Conservatives in Hurt’s district aren’t fans of his tax record and consider him tainted by his attachment to the state Republican party. Hurt faced down a candidate endorsed by Joseph “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher in the GOP primary, along with five other challengers. One candidate, Jeff Clark, is remaining in the race as an independent, to the simultaneous delight and dismay of his fellow conservatives.

Hurt’s lukewarm ideological support highlights another reason why the VA-5 race is so compelling. It may act as a referendum on the power and potential governing ability of the tea party movement, a conglomeration of citizen-run groups which has distinguished itself by the lack of a controlling establishment. The divide within the VA-5 coalition crystallizes a significant debate for those self-identifying as tea partiers, a defining argument that is raging across many political blogs. In the quest for the most conservative candidate possible, is the tea party movement making the perfect the enemy of the good? Or should the movement simply back the most conservative candidate with the best chance to win, risking a  RINO candidate who would enact “socialism lite”?

In VA-5, as elsewhere, Republicans now live in a world in which the challenger of the incumbent is derided by the traditional GOP base as “the establishment candidate.” Perhaps to position himself as a scrappy underdog while simultaneously combating his general election opponent, Hurt is sailing directly into the blue waters of VA-5’s north. He dashed about Charlottesville on August 16 and has said that he’ll continue the northern offensive through November.

Despite the wariness of local conservatives, Hurt can move aggressively because he currently has the national narrative’s upper hand. Although showered with GOP backing and contributions from some conservative fairy godmothers such as Sarah Palin’s SarahPAC, Hurt’s war chest is currently smaller than his opponent’s by a significant margin. At the same time, however, a late July poll by SurveyUSA showed Hurt with a 23–point lead.

Meanwhile, the lead story on Perriello’s campaign website under the “Campaign News” tab proudly announces his 2008 victory, directly above three stories about his response to blowback on his health care vote. But that doesn’t mean Perriello has neglected outreach in a district walloped by unemployment.

An early campaign ad takes a self-deprecating approach, depicting Perriello squishing through a dairy farm, lying on the floor of a classroom to wire it for broadband Internet, and getting a face full of coffee as he rides along with a police officer. He ends the spot in a soiled dress shirt, announcing that “no one will work harder to bring jobs to Virginia.”

It’s not the season to define oneself with mahogany desks and profiles on NPR. But the image of a battered Perriello might be more prescient than the two-year incumbent bargained for.

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Mary Beth Niemeyer teaches college and writes from wherever she happens to have an internet connection. Her first book was published in 2006, and she covers everything from politics to thoroughbred racing to the demise of NASA.
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