Of all the losses on election night for progressive politicians, the two that hurt most were Russ Feingold’s defeat at the hands of self-funded corporate clown Ron Johnson, and Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello’s loss to Republican State Senator Robert Hurt.
It’s likely you’ve heard of Perriello because, somewhat improbably, the 36-year old Congressional freshman, who represents a district that stretches south from Charlottesville to the North Carolina border, managed to become a national progressive icon over his two-year tenure. He graced the cover of The American Prospect, appeared on The Colbert Report and, the Friday before the election, hosted a much publicized rally in Charlottesville with President Obama. Groups like the League of Conservation Voters, the National Education Association and America’s Families First poured money into this race.
Progressives nationwide fell for Perriello for a few reasons. First, he seemed to be one of us. Born and raised in the district, he had an eclectic background that included a Yale law degree, time in West Africa and Afghanistan working on issues of transitional justice and his founding an organization of Catholics committed to social justice. He spoke passionately and unapologetically about a society where "we love our neighbors as much as ourselves" and maintained the kind of self-deprecating humor most politicians lack. When I spoke with him earlier this year about the mood of his district and voters’ distrust, he ran through a long, erudite analysis that name-checked Francis Fukuyama and Hegel before he stopped and said, "Boy, I’m a real man of the people this morning, aren’t I?"
Perriello ran in 2008 pledging himself to "conviction politics" and offering a "progressive alternative" to incumbent Virgil Goode. Even though McCain won the district by three points, Perriello was able to squeak out a 745-vote victory (of more than 316,000 cast), a margin provided largely by a surge of young voters and black voters, who came out for Obama, and one of the best field operations in the country.
One thing you learn early in Washington is that the incentives there—the way fundraising works, the culture of Capitol Hill—are set up to push legislators away from a progressive vision. Which is why it turns out to matter a shocking amount whether a politician actually cares about making the country more just. The path of least resistance, particularly in a district like Perriello’s, is to triangulate, distance yourself from the national party and get a seat on the Financial Services Committee so you can raise millions from the banks.
Perriello pretty much took the path of most resistance. On domestic issues he embraced progressive politics instead of shrinking from them. Of the forty-nine Democrats who represented districts that McCain won in 2008, Perriello was one of only five who voted for the Recovery Act, cap and trade, and healthcare reform. (On the wars, Perriello was a disappointment, voting two times to continue funding the war in Afghanistan.)
Perriello knew his votes for Obama’s signature domestic legislative priorities would require him to take extra time to make his case to voters, and he focused with obsessive tenacity on local issues, particularly job creation, in a district whose population centers, other than Charlottesville, were facing double-digit unemployment even before the Great Recession. And instead of running from his record, he ran on it. During an election-morning stop at a local radio station, Perriello stressed that the healthcare legislation would allow those under 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance and therefore have the chance to continue their schooling.
On the trail he touted the hundreds of local teaching jobs and 1,800 home weatherizations paid for by the Recovery Act and his repeated votes to extend unemployment.
But starting just a few weeks after inauguration day, outside conservative groups began running ads against him in the district. As the midterms neared, Americans for Prosperity spent tons of cash on local robocalls, mail drops and TV ads. They even covered the district with black November Is Coming! signs.
Perriello’s opponent, Robert Hurt, seemed to take literally those "generic Republican" polls and tried to turn the race (with some success) into generic Republican versus generic Democrat. He attacked Perriello for signing on to the "Obama-Pelosi agenda," his support for an "energy tax," out-of-control spending, blah, blah, blah. He even came out against construction of the Park51 Community Center, 400 miles outside his district’s lines.
As we drove from Charlottesville to Danville on election day, passing dairy farms, fall foliage and the abandoned textile mill that looms over Danville’s depressed downtown, Perriello’s communications director, Jessica Barba, recounted the story of several focus groups they’d run in August. The results she said, were depressing. Having decided to pay careful attention to local issues and job development, Perriello’s office had been tireless in scheduling events and press releases and garnering local press coverage for every last project funded by the Recovery Act. None of it seemed to register with voters, or if it did, it was overwhelmed by the general discontent and opposition to the president.
"In polls we did on the campaign, we found he had very high numbers on ‘delivered results for the district,’" Barba told me. "But we also realized he couldn’t win on that message." In the end, the dynamics of a district with a motivated conservative base in a country in a justifiably dyspeptic mood just swallowed it up.
In the wake of Perriello’s loss, it’s tempting to conclude that conviction politics simply doesn’t work. But the fate of Perriello’s fellow Virginia freshman Democrat Glenn Nye suggests it’s not so simple. Nye also beat a Republican incumbent in 2008, though in a district Obama won—rather than lost—by a narrow margin. But he took the opposite tack from Perriello, distancing himself from the national party and the president almost immediately, voting against cap and trade, healthcare reform, patient protection and extending unemployment. Fat lot of good it did him. He lost his race by seven more points than Perriello did.
Strange as it is to say, the lesson of election night, in Virginia and nationally, may be that Congress members’ voting records don’t matter all that much.
If that’s the case, you might as well vote for what you think is right. The point of being in Congress isn’t to get re-elected; it’s to make the country better while you’re there—something that seems to have been lost on so many Democrats who took the easy way out. On election night, Perriello told his supporters that his father had told him when he got into politics, "Judgment Day is more important than election day. It’s more important to do what’s right than what’s easy…. I’m proud of what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished."
Everything from the tenor of his voice to his wistful smile communicated that he meant it.