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.