With analysts talking about a Republican "wave" in the midterm elections, you would expect the Democratic candidate to get pounded here, in a district he narrowly won from the GOP in 2008. But Tom Perriello has been running surprisingly close to Republican Robert Hurt in the polls - and his success illustrates several contrarian factors affecting Tuesday's balloting.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not offering any predictions. Many pollsters are forecasting that the Republicans will capture the House, and they still count this district as a "likely" GOP gain. But Perriello's last poll before Election Day showed him just one percentage point behind his GOP challenger.
So what is Perriello doing right to give him a fighting chance of resisting the GOP surge? After watching a debate here the other day in this decaying industrial city on the James River, I noted several interesting points:
Perriello hasn't run scared, as so many Democrats have done this year. He's been forthright about his support of health-care reform and the economic stimulus, despite GOP attempts to demonize these issues. During the debate at Randolph College, he had the gumption to say that people should behave like "adults" and recognize that the stimulus "prevented a depression."
The Democrat has been feisty, to the point of downright mean, in going after his Republican challenger. Facing heavy GOP pressure, Perriello and his supporters counterpunched with a series of negative ads that, among other things, have made opportunistic use of the fact that his opponent's name is "Hurt."
Perriello has been able to run ahead of Democrats nationally by presenting himself as an independent who's ready to challenge his party leadership on matters of principle. He took on the farm lobby (he opposes ethanol subsidies) and trade unions (he supports Virginia's continued status as a right-to-work state). He claims that this independent stance is helping him win 60 percent of "undecided" voters.
Even Obama burnished Perriello's independent credentials on Friday. "I'm not here because Tom votes with me on every issue," he said during a campaign stop in Perriello's district.
As for Hurt, he illustrates the GOP dilemma that you can't beat something with nothing. He's an affable, country-club Republican who learned the ropes as a state senator. But he doesn't have much of a program: He repeated the need to balance the budget in almost every debate answer, but gave few specifics.
Political reporters have noted a similar trend nationally: The GOP is waging a largely negative campaign, continuing the strategy adopted by the party's congressional leadership. You know what the Republicans are against. (Hurt got the night's loudest applause when he said of health-care reform: "We need to repeal that bill and start over.") But it's much harder to know what Republican congressional candidates are for. This means that if the GOP wins the House, as is widely expected, it won't have much of a mandate other than for blocking Democratic legislation.
Hurt illustrated the ad hominem nature of the Republican assault. He repeated like a voodoo hex the names of Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The reason the GOP gets traction with the Obama-Pelosi incantations, I suspect, is because these two are seen not simply as liberal but as elitist. That's an abiding weakness for modern Democrats -to many voters, they are the party of designer clothes and Harvard Law School.
One reason for Perriello's relative success is that he has avoided this elitist moniker. This is a district where unemployment has hit hard, and he focuses on practical issues of job creation. Perriello comes across as scrappy and smart. He says of the prospect of returning to Congress and partisan mess, "I'm Catholic, so misery is something I embrace."
A final take-away from this pre-election foray on the campaign trail was the good sense of the voters (at least those who attend debates). In a year when anti-government Tea Party activists have been getting the attention, it was good to be reminded that many voters, judging by the questions here, seem to care about practical problems such as roads, schools and jobs. They want politicians who don't just talk about hard choices but are actually prepared to make them.
I can't help but think that if more Democrats had spoken in the voice of Perriello - passionate about the economy, independent of Democratic interest groups and unapologetic about their record - the results on Tuesday might look a bit different.