Election Time: VA-5

by Michael Sean Winters

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UPDATE: This was the first race I looked at, back at the beginning of September. I penned a long article about it for the print edition of NCR that you can read here. No race remains closer to the heart of progressive Catholics than this one.
The polling has been all over the place, with the SurveyUSA polls skewing the averages. Still the most recent public poll from Roanoke College shows Republican challenger Robert Hurt with a six point lead. Hurt does not come across like a raving Tea Party fanatic, although the district is dotted with tea Party lawn signs that read "November is Coming." On the other hand, Hurt's ground game appears ineffectual and Perriello's is energized. The progressive evangelical group Matthew25 is runnign ads for Perriello on Christian radio, an effective means of communicating in this sprawling rural district.
Perriello's chances will hinge on his ability to generate high turnout among African-Americans in the southern part of the district and among students at UVA in the northern part. This is a must-win for the GOP, but it looks like they will claim the seat.
ORIGINAL POST: Today we begin a month-long series that examines key midterm races of particular interest to Catholics. Each day, we will look at the key issues affecting a given race, recent polls and fundraising, find out what the Cook Political Report has to say about the race, and provide expert analysis. First up, Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District.

Congressman Tom Perriello won election to the U.S. House in 2008. His margin was one of the narrowest in the country: He unseated incumbent Republican Virgil Goode by a mere 727 votes. Perriello had earlier played a role in forming the advocacy group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and he is a darling of the Catholic Left. He was the subject of an NCR profile eighteen months ago. Recently, other news outfits have cited him as the kind of Democrat facing tough going this year.

The closeness of his win in 2008 made him an early target for the GOP. Even 18 months ago, the Republican National Congressional Committee was offering choice quotes attacking Perriello’s liberal positions. The Cook Political Report says that the district has a 5+ GOP rating, which means that compared to other congressional districts nationwide, over the previous election cycles, the Republicans outpolled the Democrats by an additional five points on average. Additionally, the GOP fielded a strong challenger in state Senator Robert Hurt, a proven vote getter in a district that includes one-quarter of the congressional district. In short, Perriello faces a tough election. The Cook Political Report still rates the race a “toss-up.”

While every election has local dynamics, the overall climate is especially challenging for a member of the incumbent party in a district that normally swings Republican. “The ABC Frustration Index -- incorporating feelings about the economy and government -- is as high as it’s been since 1992,” ABC News chief political correspondent George Stephanopoulos told NCR. “When the national mood is that sour, even the shrewdest candidates are likely to get swallowed by the wave. It doesn't discriminate.”

Perriello, unlike some Democrats in Republican-leaning districts, has not distanced himself from the Obama administration which, according to the Cook Report, makes him “one of the most courageous or least savvy members of the Democratic freshman class.” He has defended his votes for the health care bill and for the stimulus at countless town meetings. In fact, Perriello was tied for holding the most town hall meetings of any of his 435 House colleagues. Perriello also worked hard at fundraising, bringing in $2.3 million compared to Hurt’s $770,000. Hurt also faced a primary so he spent most of his money and, according to the latest financial reports to the Federal Election Commission had only about $216,000 on hand going into the general election, compared to Perriello’s $1.7 million. Hurt will be aided by money from the RNCC. Perriello probably will not need money from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which will devote its resources to candidates who do not have such large warchests.

The polling looks grim for Perriello. The most recent poll, from SurveyUSA, was conducted on Sept 2 and showed Perriello earning 35% of the vote to Hurt’s 61%. The numbers were similar to those posted in a July Syrbey USA poll which had Hurt ahead 58% to 35%. A Republican poll in late July, conducted by Ayers, McHenry & Associates, showed a narrower race with Hurt winning 49% to 43%.

In a district that leans Republican, it is doubtful his vote for the final health care bill, which was opposed by certain pro-life groups, will hurt Perriello. The mere fact of voting for “Obamacare” is enough and even if the final bill had included the tougher anti-abortion provisions first passed by the House (for which Perriello voted), it probably would not make a difference.

Turnout is always key in a congressional race but nowhere is that more true than in VA-5 which has a large African-American population and a large number of young voters, students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In 2008, voter turnout in Charlottesville was up 66 percent over the 2006 midterms and provided Perriello his margin of victory. Getting those voters to the polls in a midterm will be difficult, but it is the key to Perriello’s chance at electoral survival.

Perriello did not run in 2008 as an explicitly “Catholic candidate” but he frequently uses ideas drawn from Catholic social teaching to explain his positions, most especially his consistent and frequent invocation of the common good. Unlike the White House communications team, which has been scatter-shot to say the least, often resembling a group of five year olds playing soccer, Perriello has been disciplined in his message, tying in specific votes and positions with a general philosophy of government. Combined with a tireless work ethic that has had him back in his district every weekend, talking with voters, trying to persuade the unconvinced and beating back the misinformation that too often clouds political campaigns, Perriello is as well positioned to eke out a win as a Democrat can be in this climate and in VA-5. But, it may not be enough. If 2010 is going to be a tsunami for the Republicans, Perriello will be among the first to be swamped by the waves.

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