How Tom Perriello Showed Virgil Goode The Door

Even in a rough year for Republicans, most political observers still didn't give do-gooder Tom Perriello much of a chance against Virginia's Republican congressman Virgil Goode. Virginia's 5th Congressional District, situated in the middle of the state, is a deep pool of red in a state trending blue due to the steady influx of minorities and young professionals.

So it was a definite upset when Perriello, a former national-security consultant and religious activist, squeaked out an apparent win by a margin of around 700 votes. "What's happened is a lot of these members of Congress feel entitled to their seats," Perriello says. "And they have to earn them from the voters. … The voters [said] you know what, you're not getting it done for us." I joined Perriello briefly on the trail in mid-October, where he was trying to sell his particular brand of faith-based liberalism to a largely rural, mostly conservative district. The question was whether Perriello's pitch -- an Obamaesque approach to liberalism that speaks to bread-and-butter issues but doesn't exactly speak its name ("We need to explode the existing spectrum of right to left that has been paralyzing us for years") could work against a strong incumbent in a seemingly safe Republican district.

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Tom Perriello spent his fall crisscrossing the 5th District in a rambling white Ford pickup, a "Perriello for Congress" sticker slapped on the back bumper and several suits hanging over the back window of the cab.

At a parade at St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Perriello trudged around in a suit and work boots, shaking hands and asking voters what they wanted him to address first when he got to Washington. The answer most often given was gas prices.

"You gotta bring down the gas prices," said a middle-aged man in jeans and a green jacket. "I can't spend another four years like this." Energy is a big issue in the largely rural 5th, where residents face long commutes; the rise in gas prices has been devastating.

Perriello is a small, energetic man with a baby face and a powerful handshake. As he worked the crowd, some asked why he didn't identify himself as a Democrat on his campaign signs. One voter in fatigues and an orange hunter cap whispered urgently, mid-handshake: "You have to put 'Democrat' on your signs."

Virginia's 5th District is where the Civil War ended -- it is the site of the Confederacy's last capital, Danville. Deindustrialization has devastated the local job market, but Rep. Goode, known for personally returning phone calls and answering letters to constituents, was, until recently, beloved in the 5th. He also reliably secured federal money for his district, almost $23 million, according to Roll Call, over his 12 years in Congress. Goode was seen as an independent figure, conservative on social issues like abortion and immigration but economically protectionist and harshly opposed to free-trade agreements.

Goode's seat was supposed to be one of the safe ones. His lowest margin of victory had been 19 points. Unlike Northern Virginia, Virginia's 5th, the largest congressional district in the state, encompassing the area between Charlottesville and Danville near the North Carolina border, hasn't been through a lot of demographic changes. It may still have been 1992 here but for the economic crisis and an unprecedented Democratic get-out-the-vote operation. Perriello is no Blue Dog -- he talks fluently about his Catholic faith, which led him to work in troubled areas like Darfur and Afghanistan as a national-security consultant. He's pro-gun rights, but he strikes a tone on the economy and diplomacy that is harshly critical of the Democratic Party's timidity in standing up to the Republicans in Congress.

Goode and Perriello plainly dislike each other, something that has made debates lively, passionate, and entertaining. Goode paints Perriello as a carpetbagger from New York ("He's New York slick," Goode likes to say) who will grant amnesty to illegal immigrants and help gay couples get marriage rights, while Perriello says that Goode "represents everything wrong with American politics." Perriello was born and raised in Albemarle County, but he was based in New York for two years while working for the Century Foundation.

From the beginning, Perriello sought to undermine Goode's reputation by portraying Goode as a tool of special interests, running an ad recalling an incident in 2006, where Goode was found to have taken illegal contributions from defense contactor MZM, the company from which Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham was found guilty of accepting a bribe. At the time of the contributions, Goode was securing money for the company to build a military intelligence center in the 5th District. The head of MZM was convicted of fraud, and Goode gave the contributions to charity. Goode's previous challenger tried to use the MZM scandal against him as well, but Goode still cruised to re-election in 2006.

Goode's positions on immigration drew national attention, and it was the subject of a heated exchange between the two during their second debate. During the campaign Goode touted his support of legislation to stop "anchor babies," a term conservatives use to describe the children of illegal immigrants who are born in the United States and are therefore citizens. (Technically, legislation preventing individuals born in the United States from being automatic citizens would be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.) Perriello contended immigration hurt rather than helped Goode's campaign. "It's a wedge issue that's driving every farmer out of Goode's camp and into mine," he told me.

Immigration is a complex issue in the 5th, where the agricultural sector often relies on immigrant labor, documented and undocumented. Nevertheless, in the debate, Goode drew raucous applause from the audience when he stood up, McCain bumper stickers plastered to his gray blazer, and declared that his legislation to "stop the anchor baby situation" was "standing up for America." Perriello often uses his faith to contrast with Goode on this issue, insisting that the country has to deal with immigration in a way that "does not dehumanize our fellow children of God of whatever color." A SUSA poll released soon after showed him only 13 points behind the incumbent.

But Perriello's scrappy debate performance was only the beginning. Goode is reviled on the left, particularly among the netroots, for attacking Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim American elected to Congress, several years ago. Goode's bugaboo is immigration, and he warned that unless more in Congress "adopted the Virgil Goode position on immigration" more Muslims would be elected to Congress. Ellison was born in the United States. Earlier in the fall, Goode released an ad that recalled his preoccupation with Ellison two years ago. The ad featured a doctored photograph of a dark, sinister and bearded Perriello. The ad was supposed to make Perriello look like the first cousin of Mohammed Atta. Both Perriello and some local newspaper editorials decried it as race-baiting. At a mention of the ad, Perriello gives a wry smirk. "It looked like a Saturday Night Live parody of a Lee Atwater ad," he says. Goode's popularity in the 5th District suffered after a media backlash over his campaign tactics, this ad among them. The Danville Register and Bee and The Roanoke Times endorsed Perriello, citing Goode's tactics -- and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, while eschewing a formal endorsement because Richmond is outside the 5th, hinted it was hoping for a Perriello upset.

By running against Goode, whom Democrats mostly remember as the guy who went after Keith Ellison, Perriello became a netroots favorite and raised $200,000 from ActBlue. Goode has used Perriello's out-of-state funds to paint his opponent as a carpetbagger, deriding him as a "New York lawyer" in debates and TV ads and saying his campaign is funded entirely "from New York and California." (Not Real America, definitely not Real Virginia.) Perriello's fundraising soon outpaced the incumbent Goode, although as of Oct. 15, Goode retained more cash on hand than Perriello. Still, by mid-October publications like the Cook Political Report moved the 5th from safe Republican to lean Republican. Goode pulled out of their third scheduled debate, the only one that would have been televised, by saying he had never agreed to it. The local NBC affiliate scheduled to carry the debate claims the terms were agreed to months before.

"Looking across the country it is clear how rare it is for challengers to match incumbents in fundraising dollars," said Isaac Wood, of the Web site Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball. Perriello also benefited from Obama's extensive get-out-the-vote operation in Virginia and from the campaign's army of canvassers pitching Perriello along with Warner and Obama. Virginia's 5th District is almost a quarter African American, but unlike say, Northern Virginia, the demographics here haven't changed much, except that more people than ever are out of a job.

After the second debate, Goode’s strength was starting to flag. The race took a turn for the random on Oct. 15 when the Danville Register and Bee revealed that Goode and his wife were thanked in the credits of a gay art house film and that Goode's longtime press secretary, Linwood Duncan, had a role in the film. A brochure from the 2003 Toronto InsideOut gay and lesbian film festival listed the number of the taxpayer-funded fax machine in Goode's Danville office. Goode said he intends to find out who was responsible and whether or not taxpayer money was spent on promoting the film, which Goode says he has not seen.

In their third debate on Oct. 24, Goode railed against ACORN and argued that "the credit crisis and the crisis with the banks has been brought about by pushing loans to people who are risky at best, and I do not support making politically correct loans over financially sound loans." Perriello responded, "That is by far the scariest thing you will hear tonight. That isn't out of touch with the district; this is out of touch with reality." The audience at American Legion Post 325 erupted into applause.

Within three weeks of the election, and ostensibly to make up for the one debate that was cancelled, Goode proposed a final debate on Nov. 3. Before the election-eve debate --which no safe incumbent would have agreed to, let alone proposed. Perriello was about a whisper away from an upset, with one poll showing him down only 3 points. In the ultimate underhanded compliment, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a release the Friday before Election Day attacking Perriello as "someone who feels more at home on the Upper Westside than he does in the heart of Virginia."

Strong fundraising and compelling debate performances made him a contender, but analysts still didn't give Perriello much of a shot. On Nov. 4, the Perriello camp was at first despondent because of heavy rain that threatened to dissuade their voters from the polls. But as Perriello and his team started making the rounds, their spirits perked up. "There was an enthusiasm gap," Perriello recalls. "Our volunteers were out surviving the rain, and you didn't see a lot of folks on the other side." But late Tuesday night, the Associated Press called the race for Goode, while the networks remained mostly silent on the race.

By the morning of Nov. 5, it became clear that the AP’s report was premature. Local papers and stations had not called the race for Goode. With only a few precincts left to count, Perriello and Goode started trading leads of votes in the single digits. By Wednesday morning, there was no clear winner. By Thursday, Perriello had developed a lead hovering between 600 and 800 votes. "It's sort of like watching the stock market over the past couple of months," said Jessica Barba, a spokeswoman for the Perriello campaign.

Last Friday Perriello, the apparent but unlikely winner of the 5th District congressional race declared victory over the increasingly desperate shouts of Virgil Goode, who put out a statement saying "any declarations of winners and losers in this race is premature." Goode has still refused to concede but said it would be "appropriate" for Perriello to attend an orientation meant for new members of Congress.

"It was a year for movement politics," Perriello says. "And it was that same movement that brought us victory."

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