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In Va.'s 5th, incumbent Democrat Tom Perriello sees voter frustration firsthand

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010; A01

CHARLOTTE COURT HOUSE, VA. -- The crowds that have been showing up for Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello's town halls have been smaller and more polite than the angry throngs he saw during last August's raucous congressional recess.

Catcalls about socialism and death panels have given way to substantive and pointed questions -- about the intricacies of the new health-care law and financial regulations, finding alternative energy sources, and that most perennial of Virginia problems, traffic.

Most of all, people want to talk about the economy.

Virginia's largely rural 5th Congressional District, first represented in Congress by James Madison, is a good place to see what Democrats across the country are up against in 2010.

In this district where unemployment is running in the double digits, "what you're seeing is a deeper anxiety," Perriello said Thursday after his second town hall in two days. "Can I just get through this quarter, and this month, and pay my bills? Can we ever get back" to where things used to be?

Gale-force outrage -- both the real kind and the kind manufactured for television -- has faded this August. There is still the occasional outburst: On Saturday, the Lynchburg Tea Party Patriots hastily called a rally outside a Perriello town hall in Fork Union to demand that he vote against $26 billion in aid to state and local governments when the House reconvenes briefly this week.

But when the shouting dies down, it becomes possible to hear something else, something Democrats know is an even greater threat to them this fall.

With polls consistently showing that dissatisfaction with Washington is at or near record levels, another word for what voters are feeling right now might be "frustration," or "despair," or "disgust." Ask Donald Burroughs which best describes his feeling about elected officials these days and he says, "All of it."

Two years ago, Burroughs cast his ballot for Perriello. It turned out to be the closest congressional race in the country, an election in which the Democrat came from 35 points behind in his own poll to win by 727 votes.

But Burroughs isn't sure he will support the 35-year-old freshman congressman again this November. Burroughs stood at the back of the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors meeting room listening to Perriello speak. A battered black cap in his hand identified him as a Desert Storm veteran.

"Put a man in office," he said. "Over a year later, I'm worse off than when he took office."

Burroughs, 45, has been looking for work for 16 months now, since the brake-shoe plant where he worked closed and moved to China.

"They bail out these lending institutions. They bail out those auto manufacturers," he said. "Where's my bailout? Me and my children and my grandchildren are going to have to pay for these bailouts."

He is far from alone. Across the country, with signs showing that the economic recovery may be sputtering, nearly four in 10 people now tell pollsters that they or someone in their family has lost a job in the past year.

Their circumstances are not the only thing that drives their disaffection with Washington.

'They're being left out'

"People are really smart," said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. "They know the economic collapse happened before Obama. They hold lots of people responsible, and they're realistic enough to know you can't change things overnight. People are more angry at Washington being broken, and the wrong people being helped."

Peter Hart, another Democratic pollster, agreed. "All they see is they're being left out of the process," he said.

This was never going to be an easy election for Perriello or most of the other 47 Democrats running for reelection in districts that John McCain carried two years ago. And it is particularly treacherous for those 18 newcomers from conservative districts who washed up on Capitol Hill in the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008.

Come January, many of them may be gone. As one fatalistic Democratic official put it, "They are basically living in rented territory."

These are the larger dynamics that have historically come into play in midterm elections, which almost always see a first-term president's party losing seats.

"This is a classic," GOP pollster Bill McInturff said. "Midterm elections are about hitting the brake after you hit the gas."

Strategists in both parties know that once the campaign season enters its final stretch on Labor Day, it will be difficult to change the course of the election. So Democratic House leaders sent their members home for August with pocket cards of talking points headlined "WE CAN'T GO BACK" and a list of weekly messages to push.

"We want the power of all of our voices to convey these messages, so we ask you to plan public events and media interactions in your district around weekly themes -- if they work for you," the leaders wrote in a memo to their troops.

Last week was "Make It in America" week, to be followed by "Protecting Social Security Week," "Consumer Protection Week," "Small Business Week" and "Troops & Veterans Week." The week of Sept. 6 will bring a reprise of "Make It in America" week.

Challenge for Perriello

Perriello has no fewer than 20 town halls scheduled over the course of the recess, keeping up the pace he set last August, when he held more of them than any other lawmaker.

He's also got a lot of explaining to do in this conservative area. Of the 11 Democratic freshmen representing districts that McCain carried, Perriello stands particularly vulnerable for having voted with President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the three most controversial pieces of legislation that passed the House: the $862 billion economic stimulus bill, climate-change legislation and the health-care overhaul. (He did, however, vote against the financial regulations bill, which he said wasn't tough enough on Wall Street.)

Though those votes have made him something of a hero to Democrats nationally, they haven't gone over so well at home. The latest public poll, conducted in mid-July by SurveyUSA for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, shows Perriello running 23 points behind his Republican challenger, state Sen. Robert Hurt. Independent Jeffrey Clark, running to the right of Hurt and hoping to tap the energy of the "tea-party" movement, barely registered in the poll, with 4 percent support.

There had been some speculation that Hurt, who emerged from a seven-candidate primary in June with under 50 percent of the vote, might have some trouble rallying the district's disparate conservative forces, which include a number of tea party chapters.

But that doesn't look as if it will be a problem for Hurt. On Thursday, the last holdout among his former rivals -- second-place finisher Jim McKelvey -- endorsed him. "Since the primary, really without exception, every organization that backed any candidate is now working for us," Hurt said.

Though polls suggest that Republicans are by far the more energized party this year, the Democrats argue that -- unlike the last time they lost the House, in 1994 -- they aren't being caught off-guard. As is the case with many of the most endangered Democrats this year, Perriello does have at least one thing working in his favor: a $1.5 million campaign cash advantage.

Like just about every other Democrat who hopes to hang on to his job, Perriello tries to explain to his constituents that government bailouts and stimulus spending pulled the economy back from the precipice. He also touts the $2.9 million of federal money that will be spent to save teacher jobs and fix up the schools in Charlotte County, and the stimulus funds that will bring access to high-speed Internet service to every one of the homes and businesses in a county that still lacks a stoplight.

But it is hard to convince those who are struggling that the disaster they escaped would have been much worse than the one they are living through.

"I just can't see the avoidance of a depression, not from my end of things," Burroughs told Perriello. "This time next year, you might be talking to me living out of a vehicle."

Then again, by this time next year, Burroughs might be taking his complaints to a different congressman.

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