Virginia's 5th District race may say a lot about the electoral landscape

Rep. Tom Perriello at a town hall meeting in Virginia in August.
Rep. Tom Perriello at a town hall meeting in Virginia in August. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, October 7, 2010


Rep. Tom Perriello is this election's test case of whether casting tough votes is better than ducking them and whether a progressive who fashions an intelligent populism can survive in deeply conservative territory.

On the face of it, Perriello should be the year's most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. In 2008, he won his sprawling, largely rural district -- it stretches from academic Charlottesville down to this gritty former industrial stronghold on the North Carolina border -- by all of 727 votes out of a total of some 317,000. Barack Obama lost the district by more than 7,500 votes.

(Read more about Virginia elections at The Post's Virginia Politics blog.)

The normal course for a Democrat in a Southern countryside district would be to declare himself a conservative, ally with the Republicans on as many roll calls as possible and tell the president to find his votes elsewhere.

Perriello didn't do that. Instead, he supported the stimulus package, the cap-and-trade bill and health-care reform. Not only that, he proudly defends his votes and sees the administration as being not forceful enough in presenting its program as a coherent effort to deal with the nation's biggest problems.

"If you take the stimulus, health care and energy and you treat them as three discrete debates, you've already lost," he said in an interview over a late dinner Tuesday. "All three were about making us competitive in the world."

Then he gets to his core argument, which he repeats over and over as he drives his genuinely battered pickup from small town to small town. (He used it long before Scott Brown made trucks the preferred form of political transportation.)

"We have to build, make and grow things in America," he says. "We can't win a race to the bottom with China."

Because of his economic views, Perriello -- who has trailed his Republican opponent, state Sen. Robert Hurt, badly in one firm's polls but is close to even in most others -- can't be pigeonholed as a down-the-line Obama supporter. He has been critical of the president's economic team for not putting enough money into rebuilding the country's infrastructure and for being too close to Wall Street.

He voted against the financial reform bill because he saw it as insufficiently tough on the industry, and his campaign literature touts him for "demanding accountability from Wall Street and Washington."

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