Rep. Tom Perriello is this election's test case of whether casting tough votes is better than ducking them, and whether a progressive who fashions an intelligent populism can survive in deeply conservative territory.
On the face of it, Perriello should be the year's most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. In 2008, he won his sprawling, largely rural district—it stretches from academic Charlottesville down to this gritty former industrial stronghold on the North Carolina border—by all of 727 votes out of a total of some 317,000. Barack Obama lost the district by more than 7,500 votes.
The normal course for a Democrat in a Southern countryside district would be to declare himself a conservative, ally with the Republicans on as many roll calls as possible, and tell the president to find his votes elsewhere. Perriello didn't do that. Instead, he supported the stimulus package, the cap-and-trade bill, and health-care reform. Not only that, he proudly defends his votes, and sees the administration as not forceful enough in presenting its program as a coherent effort to deal with the nation's biggest problems.
"If you take the stimulus, health care, and energy and you treat them as three discrete debates, you've already lost," he said in an interview over a late dinner Tuesday. "All three were about making us competitive in the world."
Then he gets to his core argument, which he repeats over and over as he drives his genuinely battered pickup from small town to small town. (He used it long before Scott Brown made trucks the preferred form of political transportation.)
"We have to build, make and grow things in America," he says. "We can't win a race to the bottom with China."
Because of his economic views, Perriello—who has trailed badly in one firm's polls but is close to even in most others—can't be pigeonholed as a down-the-line Obama supporter. He has been critical of the president's economic team for not putting enough money in rebuilding the country's infrastructure and for being too close to Wall Street. He voted against the financial-reform bill because he saw it as insufficiently tough on the industry, and his campaign literature touts him for "demanding accountability from Wall Street and Washington."
If a willingness to take politically difficult votes is one Perriello characteristic, a defiant eclecticism is another. On Wednesday morning, several generations of veterans gathered at the Dan Daniel Memorial Park to announce that Perriello had won the endorsement of the political arm of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Perriello is especially proud of his work on vets' issues, and he uses his record (which also won him an endorsement from the National Rifle Association) as a shield against charges by his Republican opponent, state Sen. Robert Hurt, that he is a conventional liberal.
"The Republican playbook this year has been to stand for nothing, learn nothing from their mistakes, and then use labels and scare tactics," he said after the VFW news conference. "When you've got a guy endorsed by the NRA and the VFW, their attempt to say I'm a rubber stamp for a leftist agenda becomes ridiculous. First and foremost, I'm a populist."
That's what conservative business groups recognize, and they are pouring money into the district to help Hurt. But this week Perriello tried to transform their opposition into a badge of honor.
He trumpeted a Center for American Progress report that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was mixing foreign money into its multi-million-dollar fund paying for advertisements against him and other Democrats. The chamber denies this, though it's hard to know what's happening because the organization doesn't have to disclose the sources of its political money. Perriello called the blitz "unethical and unpatriotic" as well as "fundamentally undemocratic."
His focus on rebuilding American manufacturing and using clean-energy investments to jump-start new industries in his district makes the appeal to economic patriotism a natural extension of his campaign. He distinguishes between concentrated corporate power, which he's against, and innovation and entrepreneurship, which he's for.
Thus has Virginia's 5th District become a laboratory test of many propositions. Do politicians who vote their convictions over their obvious political interests get rewarded or punished? Can a Democrat use populism to trump garden-variety conservatism? And will the massive intervention of corporate money turn this election to the Republicans, or instead turn off voters? A lot rides on this one-term underdog who turns 36 on Saturday.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).