5th and 9th district candidates face off
Voters in Rockbridge County are expected to re-elect their Republican congressman in today’s election, but in the neighboring 5th and 9th Districts, the race remains hard to call.
The 5th District, a mostly rural area that includes Charlottesville to the north and Danville on the southside, elected a maverick Democrat, Tom Perriello, when Virginia went for Obama in ’08. But Perriello barely beat Virgil Goode Jr., the Republican who had long held that seat, and the district went for McCain for president. Perriello’s district “leans Republican,” according to last week’s “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” the campaign predictions by Charlottesville-based politics professor Larry Sabato. The race has garnered even more national attention since President Obama’s visit to Charlottesville last Friday.
In the 9th District, covering southwest Virginia’s mountainous coal country, a Democrat, Rep. Rick Boucher, has held the seat for 28 years. He is also running what looks like a close race against a Republican who has been attacking Boucher for some of his more liberal votes. Pro-Boucher TV ads fire back by pointing out that Boucher chose to vote against President Obama’s health care reform. Sabato’s Crystal Ball is saying this district “leans Democratic.”
The two races are among the most unpredictable of the contests that, tonight, could fulfill, or thwart, the national Republican goal of 39 new seats for a takeover in the House.
Virginia in general is the focus of national attention because the state is considered “purple,” a toss-up between “red state” Republican and “blue state” Democratic. But these two Congressional races in particular are seen as a political bellwether for the future of the nation.
In the 5th District, Perriello faces off against Robert Hurt, currently a state senator. Previously, Hurt served six years in the House of Delegates. An independent third candidate, Jeff Clark, 45, is also running.
Democrats have criticized Hurt, a proponent of federal spending cuts, for specifically targeting the Department of Education.
Perriello trails Hurt 40 percent to 46 percent, according to an Oct. 18 poll conducted by The Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College. Perriello, who is making a last minute push for votes, brought out the big guns last Friday night when President Obama visited Charlottesville for a Perriello rally on the Downtown Mall.
Discontent in the 5th
Meanwhile, although Perriello is facing a backlash for his vote with President Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for health care reform, he is receiving support in some unexpected places — endorsement by both the National Rifle Association and Veterans of Foreign Wars, traditionally conservative organizations. However, general opinion is that these endorsements have turned off Democrats without gaining any additional conservative support.
And while midterm elections tend to generate little excitement, voters will be paying attention today. At a Charlottesville debate Oct. 19, Perriello and Hurt duked it out in front of a capacity crowd of more than 400 people who came to watch. The auditorium in Piedmont Community College’s Dickinson Building was so packed that 100 attendees had to be turned away.
College students are not immune to the excitement of the 5th District race. The UVA College Democrats, led by senior Adam Gillenwater, have been holding weekly “Phonebanking for Perriello” events and have met several times with the candidate, who has a campaign office on the Corner adjacent to UVA. Gillenwater cited the ways that Perriello has helped college students, including a $2,500 tuition tax credit and his vote for the health care bill, which requires that insurance policies now cover a family’s children until age 26. Gillenwater said that UVA Democrats has registered more than 1,000 new voters this year and is fired up about today’s race.
One line of attack against Perriello is that he has been voting his conscience, not his consistuency. Gillenwater argues that the UVA Democrats see this as a plus, calling the race one of “conviction politics.”
“This has become about whether or not you can take tough votes and not shy away from them,” said Gillenwater, referring to Perriello’s controversial votes for health care reform and cap-and-trade, a stalled bill that would fight climate change by setting greenhouse gas limits on industry. “Perriello is explaining why how he voted in the best interest of the district,” Gillenwater said. “Hurt hasn’t been able to come up with anything except the same conservative ad lib, with style but no substance.”
Hurt spokesperson Amanda Henneberg believes the support in the district for Hurt is overwhelming.
“Hurt’s positive message is resonating throughout the 5th District as we see an incredible amount of enthusiasm and momentum on the ground in support of our campaign,” Henneberg said on Monday.
The 5th District is ranked second in the nation in outside spending — with $3,260,562 from outside groups for both candidates. Politico.com points out that outside money is important because it shows where parties and special interests believe they can make a difference, especially when they chip in toward the end of a race.
The tight races have caused campaigns to kick into high gear with some heavy-hitting political ads. In recent television campaign ads, Hurt attacks Perriello’s vote for the “Pelosi-Perriello health care plan we didn’t want.” Perriello supporters predict a “world of Hurt” if Hurt becomes congressman and have criticized him for skipping out on debates. A campaign ad compares talking to Hurt to talking to a brick wall.
Top political analysts all over the country will be closely following the tight race as results pour in tonight. One of these is Mike Allen, an influential blogging reporter for Politico who was recently profiled in a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story as “the man the White House wakes up to.”
“Tom Perriello raised more money, but the environment favors Robert Hurt more,” said Allen, a 1986 graduate of Washington and Lee University. “So it’s very close. Both of them will give you polls that will show them within the margin error, so it’s a barn-burner to the end.”
Optimism despite odds
The 9th Congressional District race is another nail-biter in Virginia. It is the first time in Rick Boucher’s lengthy incumbency that he has faced a serious opponent with experience. His Republican competition is state House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, who has been a member of the Virginia House of Delegates since 1994.
An independent third candidate, Jeremiah Heaton, 34, is a former member of the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors.
Boucher, whose district is closely tied to the coal-mining industry, is getting flak for his vote in favor of the anti-greenhouse-gas cap-and-trade bill, which is currently stalled in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Boucher camp has criticized Griffith for living outside of the 9th District, accusing him of “carpetbagging.”
Despite being behind in the polls, the Griffith camp is optimistic.
“We think our grassroots campaigning has worked,” said Griffith spokesperson Marty Gordon. “Especially considering that Boucher is an incumbent and started out with $2 million. We started out with only $150,000. It’s a three to one race money wise, but we still think we’ve gotten our message out and believe it will be a close race.”
Incumbency and campaign dollars are usually big advantages, but it looks like tonight, these may not be enough to ensure the safety of the Democrats who hold seats in 5th and 9th Districts.
Contact The Rockbridge Report