Perriello: A Tough Loss for Progressive Democrats

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One of the Democrats’ best prospects, freshman Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, has lost his bid for reelection. He faced an arduous challenge. He was narrowly elected in 2008 in a district designed by Virginia Republicans to be GOP-friendly territory. He worked hard as soon as he hit the House to bring jobs to his district. He was no down-the-line liberal. He supported gun rights (a big plus in his largely rural district) and backed the anti-abortion Stupak amendment during the health care reform fight (another plus for his Bible-Beltish turf). More important, he was truly a populist Democrat. He supported President Barack Obama on health care and the stimulus, but he decried the administration’s embrace of conventional corporatist economics symbolized by Larry Summers, whom he routinely slammed. He was a possible model for other Democrats looking to succeed in conservative but economically distressed areas.

This past summer, I spent several days chronicling his campaign. Perriello, 36, came across as an energetic and engaged politician who knew his district well. From that dispatch:

Later, racing through farmland in his white Ford pickup, Perriello explains why he thinks his brand of “conviction politics” can win over voters like Starkey: “I don’t see the dividing line as liberal versus conservative. It’s populist versus corporatist. If we’re not standing up to the most powerful interests, where is the Democratic Party?” Perriello acknowledges that some in the conservative district may judge him harshly based on his votes for health care, cap and trade, and the stimulus. (After a tea party blogger angry about “Obamacare” published the address [6] of Perriello’s brother—believing it was the congressman’s home—someone cut the propane line to the gas grill.) But, Perriello notes, “I’ve been incredibly critical of [White House economic adviser] Lawrence Summers as someone who wouldn’t know anyone making less than six figures, unless that person was driving him around.” He often reminds constituents that he didn’t vote for continuing the bank bailout.

When a saleswoman at an appliance store tells him that her elderly customers often can’t afford the cost of replacement parts, Perriello replies, “We’re not producing anything anymore. The elites in both parties are too close to Wall Street. If jobs are created in India, that’s fine with them.” This is not a made-in-DC message tailored by Democratic strategists. It’s Perriello’s home brew. He was first elected as a populist bashing the incumbent’s corporate campaign donors. Now, he’s running against the corporate consensus in the nation’s capital—including his own party’s brass.

Back in January, after Republican Scott Brown won  the Massachusetts Senate race, Perriello says, he told party leaders that the Democrats ought to introduce a different jobs bill every week to force Republicans to take a stand: “They said it was a great idea, but then it didn’t happen. And the Senate is always a problem. I think most people in Washington don’t get how serious the job situation is.” He declares it “embarrassing” that the Democrats decided to take a six-week recess to campaign as the economy teeters. “I can’t tell you how many times people in the White House say to me, ‘We want to help you; what can we do?’ I say, ‘Put out a real jobs bill.'” Perriello is pushing to end a corporate tax credit that encourages outsourcing jobs and use the revenue—an estimated $14 billion—for job-creating programs like weatherization and energy-efficiency retrofitting.
That kind of pitch is part of Perriello’s bring-it-home strategy: He says House Democrats have to toil extra hard to show how people in their districts can benefit from the big, abstract bills cooked up in Washington. During the House debate over the climate bill, Perriello recalls, he came to the district and talked to dairy farmers about how they could turn cow manure into power and possibly get off the grid—a notion, he says, that appeals to the “independent and libertarian streaks of farmers.”

Perriello was a proficient fundraiser. But from the moment he entered the House, corporate and conservative groups targeted him, launching a steady blitz of negative ads against him. In a difficult year for Democrats in a difficult district for Democrats, Perriello fought hard—and he was the one House member for whom Obama campaigned—but in a Republican district he couldn’t survive the double wave of anti-Washington sentiment and outside GOP big money. His defeat is a tough loss for progressive Democrats on a tough night.

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