This has gone a little under the radar, but a new poll from SurveyUSA shows freshman Democrat Tom Perriello trailing his opponent, Virginia state Sen. Robert Hurt, by a whopping 23 percentage points. Perriello represents the 5th Congressional District, which covers most of central Virginia and reaches down into southern parts of the state. The 5th District is generally conservative, having delivered 51 percent of its votes to Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. That said, Perriello was able to squeak by in a tight race against longtime GOP incumbent Virgil Goode, ultimately winning by a slim margin of 727 votes.
Since then, Perriello has become something of a liberal darling; unlike most Democrats from conservative districts, he is unapologetic about his liberal views and liberal votes, and has tirelessly crisscrossed the district to speak directly to constituents, and defend his votes on stimulus, climate change and health care reform as good for the area.
By all accounts, this strategy seemed to be working; in February, Public Policy Polling released a poll showing Perriello in a statistical dead heat with Hurt, who was still competing for the Republican nomination. And last week, the Perriello campaign posted impressive fundraising numbers, having raised more than $660,000 in the second quarter of 2010, with a total sum of nearly $2.3 million. Weak candidates simply don't raise that much money.
I spoke with Isaac Wood -- communications director for the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, which is located in the district -- about the poll, and he offered a few thoughts. First, he noted, the composition of likely voters was off; SurveyUSA pegged the electorate as 42 percent Republican and 27 percent Democratic, when if past elections are any indication, more Democrats will be voting: "They may be conservative Democrats, but they will still be Democrats." What's more, 30 percent of liberals in the poll supported Robert Hurt, and young voters were overwhelmingly in favor of Hurt by a margin of 62-30, which flies in the face of numbers from the 2008 election.
Still, even with those misgivings, Wood was hesitant to dismiss the poll: "I think Robert Hurt is basically filling the role of a generic Republican, and while people don't know too much about him, they are frustrated with Democrats and willing to support a credible challenger." For my part, I think this is on target; given the district and the economy, Perriello has always been in danger of losing his re-election race. Insofar that this poll tells us anything, it's that voters in the 5th District are far more dissatisfied than anyone fully realized.