Tom Perriello always knew it would be hard to hold his seat in Congress. The progressive Democrat from Albemarle County, Va. represents a district designed to nullify liberal votes with a wide swath of conservative countryside. He was elected in 2008, riding President Obama’s coattails to victory by just 727 votes. He does not represent a swing district–he is a committed progressive in a solidly Republican district. But unlike his Blue Dog contemporaries, Perriello has voted like a progressive for the past two years. And unlike many Blue Dogs, he might actually pull out a victory tomorrow night, even in the face of a Republican wave fueled by double-digit unemployment. The mere fact that he’s in the running is a stunning accomplishment.
I lived in Perriello’s district for eight years before moving to Washington, D.C. this summer. For mountains, majesty, and rock ‘n roll, it simply can’t be beat. But there were problems, namely persistent racial tensions, a lousy economy and politicians who perpetuated these two troubles. For all but the last two years we were represented by Virgil Goode, a conservative Republican and unabashed bigot. Years before Fox News made Islamophobia a mainstream political view, Goode was openly attacking Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., on the grounds that he was – gasp!—a Muslim. Goode cruised to re-election every cycle, easily surviving the 2006 Democratic wave, despite being a Bush-backing war-monger in a year when voters were rejecting both Bush and his war in Iraq.
I lived in Charlottesville, a tiny outcropping of progressive politics at the northern tip of the Fifth District. From Charlottesville, the district fans out directly to the rural south, extending all the way to the North Carolina border. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive straight south from Charlottesville to Danville, three hours southwest to Collinsville or southeast to Brunswick. All four towns are in the same district. Just 40,000 people live in Charlottesville—120,000 if you include Albemarle County (which is not as progressive as “the city”). But the district as a whole includes nearly 650,000 people, most of it tiny towns and farmland, and most of its inhabitants Republicans. Jerry Falwell’s right-wing conservative Christian enclave Liberty University is smack in the middle of Perriello country.
Conventional wisdom dictates that Democratic politicians in such districts vote like Republicans. Otherwise, a Republican runs against you, points out that you’re not a Republican, and beats you.
But Perriello decided to take a different tack when he was elected. Instead of capitulating to policies and votes he didn’t believe in, he would do what he thought was right, and make an aggressive case to voters that he was, in fact, right.
On every major vote in the past two years, Perriello voted with progressives, at times even voting against President Obama on the grounds that his policies were not progressive enough. He voted for healthcare reform and the stimulus package, but he voted against Wall Street reform because it didn’t hit the big banks hard enough, and he voted against disbursing the second round of bailout money to the banks (he wasn’t in office when the bank bailout was approved).
He never apologized for these votes or caved to right-wing rhetorical frames, and he hit the road to campaign on his record, explaining his positions directly to voters. This was old-school campaigning, and it wasn’t glamorous—trekking from Danville to Martinsville to Charlottesville every week, making speeches, shaking hands and answering questions in town-hall meetings. But Perriello is not your standard politician waiting for a cushy lobbyist job. He has a deep background in social justice work—he’s in Congress because he wants to make a difference, not to score a sweet paycheck.
All of that campaigning has paid off. Voters are pissed off this year. They’ve watched Wall Street profits soar on the back of a taxpayer-financed bailout, even as ordinary Americans have been laid off by the millions. Whether Republicans take control of the House tomorrow night or not, they will certainly make big gains as voters reject policymakers who cater to big banks while failing to tackle the jobs problem—either out of political cowardice or ideological blindness.
But Perriello is holding even with Republican challenger Robert Hurt. The fact that Perriello even has a chance in this election ought to be viewed as something of a miracle. Or maybe it’s just good governing, combined with good politics.
Tim Fernholz almost gets it right in his profile of Perriello for The American Prospect. But he misses the mark with this comment, which is going to be echoed by the Beltway establishment on Wednesday morning, however the race turns out:
“If Perriello can beat the odds tomorrow, it is not only his reputation, and the president’s, that will be burnished . . . . Should he lose, the voices who call for a more timid Democratic Party will have a point in their favor.”
This is wrong. Perriello won in 2008 by just 727 votes. Any Democrat who entered office by so slim a margin is almost certain to lose this year. By any conventional political analysis, Perriello should be getting trounced He faces a massive voter registration disadvantage, representing a district that is designed to crush progressive voices during what is expected to be a wave election for Republicans, amid strong anti-incumbent attitudes sparked by high unemployment. But he’s holding even. That’s incredible. Even if things go well for Democrats tomorrow, and they hold the House, candidates in much safer districts than Perreillo’s are going to lose.
The Perriello lesson, in other words, is already clear. Whether he wins or loses on November 2, having the courage to govern by his convictions and do real work to sell those policies has paid off. It might not get him re-elected. But in an all-but-impossible district, losing close sends a clear signal to actual swing districts. Governing like a pretend-Republican only reinforces the Republican world-view and aligns voters against you. If you want to have a chance, you have to stand for something. Tom Perriello stood for something these past two years, and even if it can’t overcome a terrible economy to win him two more years, the political establishment should take heart.