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

Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, which is anchored by Charlottesville at its northern point and runs south to the North Carolina border, followed a national trend in 2008, dumping a Republican incumbent for a Democratic challenger. Now, the current incumbent, Tom Perriello, is in critical danger. But the candidate who still stands to be burned by grassroots fire is his challenger, Republican Robert Hurt.

Freshman Perriello is learning what several of his House classmates have discovered: President Obama’s coattails, once rivaling the length and breadth of a royal wedding gown, are now more closely resembling a cocktail dress. The Cook Political Report currently colors VA-5 the barest shade of pink, listing the race as a Democrat toss-up.

The reason lies in the flash-point circumstances which originally sent Perriello to his seat. While Perriello defeated six-termer Virgil Goode, the margin was less than a thousand votes. Although McCain-Palin won the district, Goode drifted between both parties and an independent status during the course of his career, then hammered on illegal immigration and ACORN during a cycle in which voters were applauding soft-focus hope and change.

Ironically, a candidate with Goode’s credentials might run quite well for the Democrats in 2010. But Goode was tone deaf at precisely the right time for Perreillo, who benefited from an energized youth vote pouring down from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Goode couldn’t close the 19,000-vote deficit he suffered in the north with a demoralized NASCAR vote in the south, and the cash-flush Perriello eked out a victory.

Thus, never really enjoying job security, Perriello glumly watched as Roll Call flagged VA-5’s seat as one of the House’s ten most vulnerable. A grimly eager conservative movement mirrors the very conditions which accounted for his victory in 2008, and Perriello is emphasizing his Catholic faith, Second Amendment support, and membership on the Veterans Affairs Committee. However, he also voted for the economic stimulus, cap and trade, and health care reform — three issues which are quickly becoming litmus tests for independents and conservatives.

Enter attorney Hurt, a member of the Virginia legislature. While Perriello is running distinctly from the center, Hurt makes no such concessions. He touts his roots in the red southern portion of the district. His campaign does not blush in touting his pro-life record, opposition to gay marriage, and support for our intelligence services.

The narrative for this bellwether race, then, is a who-hates-liberal-policies-more contest. Mentions of President Obama on Perriello’s campaign site are sparse; pictures of the very man who pushed him to election just months ago are non-existent.

Nonetheless, in June, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) stepped in on Perriello’s behalf, announcing that Hurt was tax-friendly and that “(i)t’s time for Robert Hurt to stop behaving like a career politician.” The DCCC also pointed to a 2004 blast from Americans for Tax Reform, which named Hurt a “Least Wanted” candidate — all criticisms that place the DCCC in the same camp as, of all people, tea partiers.

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.