CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – "I'm at the point where I want a beer, but I think it would make me fall asleep," Rep. Tom Perriello jokes to reporters gathered in a rec-center gym following a get-out-the-vote rally. It's just past 9 p.m., and Perriello has been campaigning, by his measure, for three and a half years -- the 18 months he spent wresting his seat in south central Virginia from a longtime Republican incumbent during the 2008 election cycle, and the nearly two years since he's spent in Congress. There, he supported much of President Barack Obama's agenda and has returned home, where the GOP maintains a 5-point advantage in voter registration, to defend it.
Yet, in a year when Democrats are supposed to be on the run, Perriello isn't. His work ethic and outreach have kept him within a few percentage points of his Republican opponent. In further defiance of the conventional wisdom, he's doing so by campaigning alongside Obama, who appeared with him here Friday in front of a raucous crowd of 10,000 -- the only House race the president will visit before the election.
Obama told the rally that the election would be a test of our nation's ability to overcome political cynicism. For the 5th District, however, it will be a test of whether an outspoken, idiosyncratic progressive can hold his seat without adopting the equivocation of the party's Blue Dog caucus, the often-Southern Democrats who are known for their conservatism and association with business interests. When cajoled -- or bought off -- into voting for big-ticket agenda items like health-care reform, they downplay their support. Perriello does the exact opposite, arguing for his votes up and down his district.
Progressive Democrats have long been convinced the Virginian's approach is the way to win contested seats without compromising the party's integrity, and tomorrow's results will be a referendum. "People basically want fighters," Perriello says after the event. He has no "time for foolishness," obstructionist Republicans, or "cowardly" Democrats, for that matter. He doesn't understand why Democrats don't point out, repeatedly, that they've overseen nine straight months of job growth -- perhaps because that growth has been anemic at best.
Charlottesville is Perriello's bulwark; he grew up in Albermarle County and depends on the Democratic votes centered around the University of Virginia campus and in the local African American community. Though Perriello shared supporters with John McCain in 2008 in the rest of his rural district (and will need to attract them again) Obama's visit is a chance to rally enthusiasm among young people, minorities, and independents.
"He's an organizer," Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris told me during the event. "He knows how to mobilize people. This has been the Obama school of politics."
Meanwhile, the chief argument made by Perriello's opponent, state Sen. Robert Hurt, is against the congressman's association with the "Obama-Pelosi" agenda. One radio ad funded by the group National Right to Life helpfully explains to listeners that "this race is about us versus them. ... Perriello is a them."
It's not really true. Perriello, a practicing Catholic, is pro-life, but he didn't grandstand about abortion during debates over the health-care bill, like Bart Stupak's band of hold-out votes. The Virginian quietly assured himself that the bill didn't fund abortion and voted for it. He voted for the stimulus and the House's cap-and-trade legislation. He voted against the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill, but unlike other vulnerable Democrats, he did so because it didn't do enough to restrain the banks, not because of the financial sector's lobbying.
He has explained all of this to the folks in his district again and again. He's debated his opponent five times. In his stump speech, he touts his support for programs that helped his district -- 4,500 senior citizens receiving prescription-drug benefits, and hundreds of small businesses accessing loans. The rally featured a speech from a local businesswoman who says health-care reform is saving her money and letting her invest in jobs again. This is not about ideology, he says. This is about policies that work for his constituents.
"I think the Democrats can take a lesson from him," Mayor Norris tells me. "He's making the pitch."
But the region's economy has struggled not just during this recession but for a decade. When Perriello, an economic populist, was first elected, unemployment in some Southside towns was 18 percent. Now it's breaking into the 20s. Hurt says this is Democrats' fault, an enticing message to frustrated people who have been told for a long time that government is the problem. Perriello is counting on voters recognizing that their problems are part of a broader economic dislocation and that there aren't many answers behind Robert Hurt's identity politics.
If Perriello can beat the odds tomorrow, it is not only his reputation, and the president's, that will be burnished. If the election, as expected, ends with many Blue Dogs headed home, Perriello's methods will be the subject of more favorable attention. Should he lose, the voices who call for a more timid Democratic Party will have a point in their favor. But even if he fails tomorrow, Democrats shouldn't count him out: Some speculate he could make a bid against incumbent state Attorney General -- and Tea Party favorite -- Ken Cuccinelli.
After the rally, Perriello spoke with a few straggling attendees while helping disassemble the stage and pass out campaign signs to supporters. There was work to be done, and someone had to do it.
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