Political novice Jeffrey Clark could turn Va. congressional race on its head

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; B04

The race in Virginia's 5th Congressional District already has a large and colorful cast of characters.

There's the freshman Democrat, Rep. Tom Perriello, seeking to hold on to the Republican-leaning seat in a tough cycle for incumbents. There's the GOP front-runner, Pittsylvania state Sen. Robert Hurt, who looks likely to win the nomination even as some conservatives grumble about his record. And there are the six other Republican candidates, none of whom appear to have the support necessary to topple Hurt in the June 8 primary.

Now there's one more player on the stage in the district that stretches from north of Charlottesville down to the North Carolina border: Jeffrey A. Clark, a political novice who so dislikes Hurt that he is threatening to run for the seat as an independent if Hurt is the Republican nominee. Clark has drawn a burst of media attention in recent weeks, with stories in the Lynchburg News & Advance, Politico and The Fix. All focus on the idea that Clark might just siphon off enough votes from Hurt to hand Perriello the victory.

Is Clark a viable spoiler candidate? Among political operatives and analysts, there are two schools of thought.

The first is that there is enough dissatisfaction with Hurt among conservatives -- primarily because of his vote in favor of 2004's tax-raising budget by then-governor Mark R. Warner -- that a candidate can secure a certain level of support simply by not being Hurt. That's what Clark thinks, and he said Tuesday that he would happily support any Republican in November as long as Hurt doesn't get the nomination.

"We've made a pledge to the six other Republican candidates that if they put together the support to win the primary, we will drop our campaign and support them," Clark said.

Clark said he and the other Republicans all agree that Hurt is the wrong man for the job.

Hurt skipped Tuesday night's debate at Liberty University, where the other GOP hopefuls took turns criticizing the front-runner. Property developer Jim McKelvey, considered perhaps the biggest threat to Hurt in the Republican contest because of his wealth, has already suggested that he might back a third-party candidate rather than Hurt.

Isaac Wood, an expert on state races from the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he would be watching the also-rans in the GOP primary to see whom they endorse.

"It's entirely possible that at least one if not several of those losing candidates could look elsewhere with their support," Wood said.

"Tea party" groups are active in the 5th District and could have an effect in November if they throw some of their support behind one particular candidate in November. Such unity may be hard to achieve: Although Clark is a member of the Danville Tea Party, other members of the group are supporting a range of candidates, including Hurt.

"I don't consider myself the 'Tea Party candidate,' " Clark said.

Hurt's campaign says that Clark might as well run as a Democrat, given that a strong independent bid by him would end up boosting Perriello.

"If Jeff Clark's on the ballot, then we have two people Robert Hurt runs against who want to see Nancy Pelosi as speaker rather than just one," said Chris LaCivita, a consultant to Hurt's campaign.

Another Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the race, made a more practical case against Clark.

"Bottom line is, he has no name ID, no money and no capability to get money," said the strategist. "He will get the standard 2 percent protest vote, and that's it."

It's true that Clark has not run for office before and has not been particularly active beyond some Young Republican events he attended years ago. He and his wife run a microbiology lab in Danville that tests water, and he also conducts home inspections. Clark said he has not raised enough money to require him to file reports with the Federal Election Commission.

But he has been gathering the signatures necessary to get on the ballot as an independent. Only 1,000 valid signatures are needed by June 8, but Clark said he would submit more than twice that number because "we're expecting a pretty thorough challenge" from local Republican officials.

In 2008, Perriello beat Rep. Virgil Goode (R) by 727 votes, with no other candidates on the ballot. In 2006, an independent Green Party candidate got 1,928 votes, or about 1 percent. Could Clark get that much support or more? And will the race be close enough that Clark's votes might tip the contest in Perriello's favor?

"I'm not sure it's a likelihood," Wood said, "but it's still a real possibility."

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