The Perriello Lesson

The Washington Post this morning has an article by Rosalind Helderman entitled “Jobs-bill vote may put senators in tight spot.” Tonight, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on President Barack Obama’s jobs plan and while the Democrats know they do not have the votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, it is also unclear if they can get all the Democrats on board.

Democratic senators, especially those facing difficult re-election prospects, may be unwilling to vote for a bill that is not going to pass anyway if the end result is that their opponents next year can paint them as too close to Obama, whose shrinking popularity has many Democrats worried. On the other hand, if they vote with the Republicans, these wavering Democrats make it impossible to run against the Republicans as the obstructionists. As Helderman writes, “That is likely to be a dynamic that will prove problematic for Obama and Senate leaders in coming months.”

This is a false dilemma. The Democrats in the Senate should back the jobs bill. The only way they can possibly hope to win re-election in tough swing states is by standing for something. And, running in an election year that will be dominated by the race for the White House at the top of the ticket, they cannot hope to win by running from the President and his policies. Gone are the days when individual congressmen and senators can enjoy a special relationship with their constituencies that permit them to swim against the tide.

Anti-Washington sentiment is at an all-time high. The only way any Democrats, including the President, can hope to win next November is by turning the election into a “choice election.” As the President and Vice-President have recently said: “Don’t compare me with the Almighty. Compare me with the alternative.” If Democrats fail to stand up for government intervention to help promote job growth, if they are not seen as fighting for the working and middle class, the election will turn into a referendum on Washington and they will lose.

There is a proximate example these worried senators should consider. In 2008, two Democratic congressional candidates won traditionally Republican seats in Virginia. Glenn Nye won in Virginia-2 with 52.40% of the vote, defeating Republican Thelma Drake who garnered 47.46%. In VA-5, Tom Perriello defeated Republican incumbent Virgil Goode by the razor-think margin of 50.08% to 49.85%. Nye and Perriello went to Congress. Perriello became a strong voice of support for the President, indeed outflanking him on the left at times. Nye engaged in the kind of calculations that this morning’s Post article examines among the senators, trying to figure out how to distance themselves from the President, trying to appear moderate, trying to avoid a throwdown with the GOP. During their respective re-election bids, Nye, like most freshman Democrats from Republican-leaning seats ran away from the President. Perriello, on the other hand, defended his votes, especially his vote for health care reform. He was the only embattled congressman who invited Obama to a campaign rally the weekend before the election.

Both Perriello and Nye lost and VA-2 and VA-5 both returned to where they had long been, the GOP fold. But, Nye, whose district was less GOP-leaning than Perriello’s lost by more than ten points, losing to Republican E. Scott Rigell by a margin of 53.12% to 42.25%. In the more heavily GOP VA-5, Perriello lost by less than four points, 50.81% to 46.98%.

The lessons from the Perriello-Nye comparison should be obvious. Lesson #1: Voters expect a candidate to stand for something. While visiting VA-5 during last year’s election, I heard from several people that while they did not always agree with Perriello’s stances on the issues, they admired him for standing up for his positions and preferred to vote for someone who knew his own mind and did not govern by polls, even if they disagreed with that person, than for someone who was all wishy-washy. Lesson #2: The national political debate will shape local elections in ways that no amount of spending, campaign advertising, and hand-shaking can overcome. Democrats will be lumped with Obama whether they like it or not. Lesson #3: Voters like someone who is scrappy, who is fighting for them, who is defending for his or her views. Lesson #4: Give voters a choice or they will turn the race into a referendum on incumbency and that is the surest way to lose.

I agree with some of the objections that certain senators have with the Obama plan. For example, Sen. John Tester has voiced skepticism that giving businesses a tax break for hiring the long-term unemployed will actually result in more job creation. I suspect Tester is right. But, I also know that the American people want Congress and the White House to do something. Americans are a pragmatic people who warm to the idea that Washington is trying to improve their lot. If we try something like the tax credit for hiring the long-term unemployed and it doesn’t work, let’s try something else. But, the quickest way for any incumbent to guarantee a loss next November is to appear indifferent or to appear to be party to the dysfunction that has gripped Washington.

Tom Perriello lost his re-election race, but he lost it by much less than many other freshman Democrats who came from much less Republican-leaning districts. He stood for something and he stood with the President. Those senators who are thinking their electoral chances are improved by distancing themselves from the President should give Glenn Nye a call.

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