Two years ago this week, a cherub-faced Eagle Scout from Ivy named Tom Perriello pulled off the near-impossible: ousting entrenched six-term incumbent Rep. Virgil Goode from Virginia’s sprawling Fifth Congressional District. Though many attributed Perriello’s wafer-thin, 727-vote victory to Barack Obama’s electoral coattails, in reality the first-time candidate actually outperformed Obama on Goode’s Republican-leaning southwestern turf, and in general drew more conservative support than any Fifth District Dem in recent memory.
In the intervening years, however, things have definitely not gotten any easier for Perriello’s struggling constituents, and the overall political atmosphere for Democrats has gotten significantly worse, leading many political prognosticators to assume that Tom’s goose is royally cooked.
And yet, somehow, Perriello has managed to keep himself in the game. A recent Roanoke College poll had him trailing by just 6 percent, while an internal poll released by the campaign last week showed him down by a single point.
In many ways, the various trials and travails of Perriello have become a walking, talking, campaigning metaphor for the reeling Democratic Party. From the moment that Goode conceded the 2008 race, the national press focused on Charlottesville’s earnest, hard-working new congress-critter as a convenient stand-in for a new breed of “Obama Democrat” who had surfed a blue wave of hope into dozens of blood-red districts across the country. (Just a few weeks ago, even as he was trailing in the polls, Time magazine named Perriello one of the “rising stars of American politics.”)
But now that the wave has receded, many of those same Dems are feeling stranded—beset on all sides by high unemployment, low liberal enthusiasm and angry Tea Party hordes. In fact, the other two members of Virginia’s freshman congressional class—Representatives Gerry Connolly and Glenn Nye—are in similarly tough reelection battles.
But it was Perriello who got the prize plum (or rotten apple, depending on your perspective) of a presidential visit last Friday. And it’s not hard to see why Obama chose to make Charlottesville one of his last major stops of the campaign season. The Fifth District might not be the toughest fight the Dems are facing this cycle, but there’s no doubt that it’s a prime bellwether.
In addition, the President surely realizes that Perriello’s problems very closely mirror his own. By voting for both the much-demonized stimulus and health care reform bills, Perriello set himself up for all manner of conservative attack ads. But he also antagonized his liberal base by staying true to his Roman Catholic roots and voting for the so-called “Stupak amendment,” which sought to keep taxpayer funds from being used to fund abortions.
For all of these reasons and more, Perriello has become one of the most prominent Democratic canaries in an increasingly dark electoral coal mine. If he dies, it’s a good bet that the donkey’s House majority is toast. But if he somehow emerges from this Election Day with his job intact, it will mean that, against all odds, Obama’s buzzer-beating half-court shot once again miraculously hit its mark.