The Virginia experiment

Perriello’s opponents appear to sense opportunity in the controversial positions he has staked out and the political shifts they’ve seen in other races. The new Republican governor of Virginia won the Fifth District by a huge margin in November. The passage of health care reform could continue to stir up conservative anger. The economy, which many analysts contend will be the most important factor in the race, remains terribly weak in the region. Still, there’s a chance for Perriello to win in November. Although he eschews money from corporate PACs and federal lobbyists, he had $1.4 million in his war chest in April, most from individuals and businesses. A recent poll showed him neck-and-neck with the potential Republican contenders, and things might swing his way if people feel some benefit from projects he has championed.

Perriello can also point to improvements he’s helped bring to the Fifth. He secured federal stimulus money to avert widespread layoffs of teachers and police throughout the district and helped bring $10 million in stimulus grants to develop four biomass energy projects. His most visible victory may be the $28.9 million in stimulus funds to replace a Danville bridge that is a notorious bottleneck, and construction is set to begin in late spring.

So far, conservative opinion in the Fifth is split among seven different candidates. State and national Republican leaders are backing Robert Hurt, a state senator. But several years ago, Hurt voted for a modest sales-tax increase proposed by then-governor Mark Warner, and Tea Party sympathizers cannot forgive him. They also resent the fact that the GOP leadership has apparently anointed Hurt before the primary—and they like the stances of the other contenders, a mix of local politicians and businesspeople, who are calling for slashing taxes and getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The wild card in the race is Virgil Goode. Though he said last year he wouldn’t run again, the possibility is hardly out of the question. If Goode or another deep-dyed conservative runs as an independent in November, the resulting three-way race could split the Republican vote and send Perriello back to Washington. Tea Party members, so far, have said that they will vote their conscience rather than back a candidate they don’t like.

The passage of the health care bill and of another law improving the student loan system, Perriello says, have made him hopeful again after the gloom he felt in January. At the same time, another wave of anger came at him from unhappy constituents.

Right after the health care vote, a local Tea Party blogger published what he said was Perriello’s Charlottesville address and urged conservatives to “drop by” the house and tell Perriello of their displeasure face-to-face. The address was actually that of Perriello’s brother Bo, who returned home one day to find that his back porch was filled with the smell of gas. Someone had cut the propane line to the outdoor grill.

Bo has four children under the age of nine, and many conservatives, including the state’s attorney general, have decried the posting of the address. (The blogger has since taken it down.) Perriello declines to say if he thought the blog post or the Tea Party was behind the vandalism. The FBI is investigating the incident.

“This is the most miserable job I’ve ever loved—that’s one of the laugh lines I use,” he said over the phone in Washington the day after the incident, laughing tiredly himself. He stops laughing. “I didn’t ever imagine it would be a parade of roses.”  

The comment period has expired.