On U-Va.'s campus, struggling to rekindle excitement of 2008

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 7:55 PM


Voters aged 18 to 29 who have given a lot of thought to this year's election

At the front of a small lecture hall on the grounds of the University of Virginia, senior Adam Gillenwater is trying to rev up the troops - about 40 members of the University Democrats meeting on a rainy evening less than two weeks before Election Day.

"Get excited," commanded Gillenwater, the club's president. "This is the final stretch, and we can still win this thing."

This thing they're trying to win is the reelection of Rep. Tom Perriello, who needs the support of U-Va. students if he's going to beat state Sen. Robert Hurt (R).

They were excited in 2008, when young people came out for President Obama and helped Perriello edge a six-term Republican by just 727 votes in this generally conservative district.

But some students said they're not really feeling it this year.

"Last time was just so much more of a big deal," said Kirsten Hughes, 21, a senior from Baltimore who is registered to vote here. "It was a historical event. People felt like they were making a difference."

Between five classes and a job, Hughes said she's barely been following the election. If she votes, it'll probably be for Perriello. But will she vote?

"Maybe," she said.

Signs of the election are thin. The University Democrats have hung a few Perriello fliers on bulletin boards and outdoor sign posts, but they're indistinguishable from the others - one promoting a living wage rally, another advertising game night at the Chabad House.

Perriello will be at U-Va. on Monday for a debate with independent candidate Jeff Clark, who has some tea party support. Hurt, who has said he will not debate Clark, will not attend.

On a sign advertising the event in the student union, someone wrote the word "free" above the printed words "tickets available" as an added enticement.

"In 2008, it was crazy," said Suzy DeHoratiis, 20, a junior from Reston. "There were people everywhere getting you to register to vote. People with stickers. People with signs. . . . This time, I don't care much either way."

The campus Democrats say young voters aren't as disengaged as people might think. They've registered 1,100 students to vote, they say, comparable to 2008.

At 36, Perriello is an Obama-like Democrat who will build late momentum with young people, they maintain. He's worked the district, tirelessly and defiantly defending votes in favor of health care, the stimulus package and other Democratic priorities.

At last week's meeting, the Democrats heard from a special guest speaker, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D), who represents the area.

Before addressing the students, Deeds said Democrats face the same "poisonous" atmosphere that dogged his failed bid for governor a year ago. "They came out for Obama," said Deeds, who lost by 17 points to Robert F. McDonnell. "But we saw it last year. They only come out if Obama's on the ticket."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company