GOP division could keep Va. seat in Democrats' hands

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010; A01

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."

At least five distinct Tea Party organizations have formed across the 5th District, and activists say more are on the way. So far, seven candidates, including Hurt, are vying for the Republican nomination.

Hurt is doing what he can to win over his conservative opponents. This month, he welcomed members of the Danville T.E.A. Party into his Senate office in Richmond. He issued a mea culpa for his 2004 vote raising taxes and signed a no-tax pledge. And he has signed on to two states' rights measures protecting gun ownership and opposing federal health-care reform.

"The sentiment of the Tea Party is widespread," Hurt said in an interview last week. "People are very concerned about the direction of our country, and I share their concern."

Nonetheless, the feelings against Hurt are growing. Last week, on the day of a large Tea Party rally in Richmond organized in part by groups from the 5th District, dozens of activists swarmed Hurt's Senate office, although he wasn't there. And last weekend, Hay and a handful of Tea Party leaders met to figure out how to block Hurt's nomination.

One option is to unite behind a single candidate. But they also discussed the possibility of recruiting Goode, who has not ruled out an independent bid. That would almost certainly split the Republican vote and deliver the victory to Perriello, which doesn't bother some.

"If Robert Hurt wins, then we have an ideologically inconsistent congressman for a couple of decades," said Bradley S. Rees, a conservative blogger and talk-radio host in Bedford. "I would rather we had an ideologically consistent Democrat who we can hammer on their records. We'll get Perriello in 2012 -- with a stronger, more consistent candidate."

A target from Day One

Perriello has been a target of Republicans from the day he took office. The Yale-educated lawyer and former war-crimes prosecutor in Africa was just weeks into his term when the National Republican Campaign Committee began airing ads against him.

The opposition only grew when the freshman Democrat began to vote. First, he backed the stimulus, then cap and trade, health-care reform and a $154 billion jobs bill.

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group, sent its "Hands Off Our Health Care" bus tour on four passes through the 5th District, making more stops there than anywhere else in the country. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined in, airing television ads criticizing Perriello's vote for health-care reform.

The campaign against Perriello has made him a familiar face, if not always a welcome one. Last week over dinner at an Italian restaurant in the tiny village of Moneta, a customer passing Perriello's table stared in recognition and then muttered to a member of the congressman's staff: "That must be the table where Democrats sit."

In November, the Danville T.E.A. Party scheduled a bonfire rally at which they planned to burn Perriello and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in effigy. The event was canceled after it was criticized and the property owner balked.

Perriello is acutely aware of his vulnerability. He was able to win in 2008 in part by riding the coattails of President Obama, who spurred a surge of African American and college voters who are unlikely to turn out in the same numbers this year. Since winning, he has traveled every weekend to talk to constituents in his district, which stretches from the North Carolina line north to the Charlottesville area, where Perriello is from.

At the peak of the public fury over the health-care debate last summer, he held 21 town hall meetings totaling 100 hours, more than any other member of Congress. He continues, despite the leanings of his district, to stress his opinion that health-care reform is badly needed and that the insurance industry is largely responsible for organizing the opposition.

"When you have opponents willing to lie, cheat and steal and spend hundreds of millions of dollars doing it, that makes it more difficult," Perriello told the Smith Mountain Lake Democrats at a breakfast speech last week. "They spent a million dollars on negative TV ads against me last year -- in a nonelection year. A lot of that money was coming from the health insurance companies. That shouldn't shock us."

Over bacon, eggs and biscuits at the Bluebird Bakery and Grill in Moneta last week, Lynn Sharples, 55, a Democratic retiree from Bedford County, asked the congressman: "How come you can't sell it? I want to know why you can't make it happen."

It prompted a hallelujah from Perriello, who stood at the center of the dining room and spoke, over the clinking of forks and knives, about his brother, Bo, a high school teacher and coach with four children and health insurance premiums larger than his mortgage.

"The House bill takes on the insurance companies," Perriello said. "The Senate bill, not so much."

The Democrats mmm-hmm'd approvingly.

Perriello's outreach has not gone unnoticed, and even many of his opponents acknowledge his sincerity. But they still don't think it'll be enough.

"He's a nice person. He gets all over the district," said James Falls, a Bedford County resident who heard Perriello speak later that day at a veterans event at the local VFW post. "But around here, his chances are two: Slim and none."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company