GOP division could keep Va. seat in Democrats' hands

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010

By all rights, Tom Perriello should have almost no chance to win reelection to Congress. He's a stimulus-backing, health-care-reform-loving, cap-and-trade-supporting liberal Democrat who represents a conservative central Virginia district where antipathy to the president and all things Washington runs high.

Perhaps too high. Perriello's opponents are so divided about who is the best conservative to replace him that they are transforming what should be a gimme for Republicans into a national emblem of GOP strife, potentially setting up a replay of the special election in Upstate New York in November that handed the Democrats a seat in a region they hadn't represented in more than 100 years.

As in New York, Republican leaders in Virginia are backing a moderate state lawmaker, Sen. Robert Hurt, whose record enrages many conservatives, including a disparate band of Tea Party activists. To them, Hurt is not a real conservative because of his past support for tax increases, and they're promising a third-party challenge if he wins the nomination. And lurking on the sidelines is Virgil H. Goode Jr., the former GOP congressman who lost to Perriello by 727 votes and has hinted at running as an independent.

"We want a conservative, not a situational Republican," said Laurence Verga, a business owner from the Charlottesville area and one of five Tea Party candidates in the Republican primary. "I really believe the 5th District congressional election is about the soul of American politics."

At a time when Republicans are ecstatic over Scott Brown's astonishing victory in last week's special election for the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts, the race in Virginia's 5th is a reminder of the dangerous undertow created by the intense passion that motivates the Tea Party movement and other conservatives.

That enthusiasm is a boon to Republicans in a liberal place like Massachusetts because conservative are so desperate to win they're willing to unite behind a single candidate, even if some of that candidate's positions are anathema to many. Brown, for instance, supports abortion rights.

But in such places as Virginia's 5th District, conservatives are uncompromising. Their goal isn't simply to reclaim the seat from Democrats: They want to fill it with only the purest of conservatives.

Unless leaders can bring the disparate groups together in districts like these, Republicans are likely to offset every unexpected victory they gain in a place such as Massachusetts with an unlikely loss elsewhere. Already the dynamic is playing out in various ways in races in Texas, Florida, Tennessee and elsewhere.

The backlash on the right

In the 5th District, conflict has arisen at nearly every turn as Republicans gear up to challenge Perriello.

It started when national and state Republican leaders began urging Hurt, an affable lawyer from rural Pittsylvania County, to get into the race. Hurt had name recognition and a political base. And his moderate views -- he voted for a $1 billion tax package in 2004 and for smaller tax increases in a roads plan in 2007 -- might play well with independent-minded voters.

But many conservatives were angered not just because they oppose Hurt's moderation but also because they are deeply resentful of being told who their candidate will be by party leaders in Richmond and Washington. Their anger grew when Hurt's supporters successfully pushed for a primary over a convention, giving him a more inclusive format that tends to favor moderates. Hurt also received $7,000 from U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip, confirming Tea Party suspicions that the GOP was fully involved.

"The fact of the matter is that Robert Hurt is the establishment candidate, and it appears that the GOP is doing everything it can to make sure he is the nominee," said Bill Hay, who leads the Jefferson Area Tea Party organization in the Charlottesville area. "That's causing a whole lot of bad blood right now between some of the Tea Party people."

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