LYNCHBURG, Va. – In a state that represented the sweep of President Obama’s triumph when he became the first Democratic presidential candidate in nearly a half century to win its electoral votes two years ago, Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello's difficult fight for reelection now symbolizes the extent of the challenge facing the president and his party.
Swept into office on Obama’s coattails by 727 votes – the narrowest margin of victory for any of the country’s congressional candidates – Perriello finds his fate inextricably bound up with that of Obama, who will campaign with him Friday, a rare presidential campaign visit on behalf of a House candidate.
Perriello’s votes for Obama’s agenda were a major topic Wednesday night when the congressman debated his Republican opponent, state Sen. Robert Hurt.
“Congressman Perriello isn’t standing for people of the fifth district, he’s standing for Barack Obama and [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.],” Hurt said. The Republican’s call to “Repeal the [health care] bill and start over” triggered the loudest applause of the night.
Perriello made no apologies for his votes in favor of health care and climate-change legislation.
“I don’t have to hide because we have a track record,” he said in defending his support of health-care reform. “We’ve extended Medicare for a generation.”
His support for the president’s agenda made Perriello a hero to the left -- environmental and labor groups have spent millions on his reelection. But that support has also left him vulnerable in a district that was carried narrowly by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, in 2008.
Perriello’s struggles are emblematic of a larger trend this cycle: Democrats who picked up seats in tough places with the wind at their backs in 2006 and 2008 are now running scared. “The vulnerable seats are Bush districts picked up in big Democratic years of ‘06 and ’08,” said University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato.
Polls show Perriello down, but not out. Sabato says that Perriello “is an excellent example” of a freshman who knows he’s in trouble, and has banked on outworking his opponent. “He never rests, he’s everywhere all the time,” Sabato said.
Obama’s schedule indicates the president believes Perriello still has a fighting chance, as well. Still, the appearance is not without its risks for the endangered freshman: a recent poll in the district had Obama’s job approval rating at 34 percent, with 54 percent disapproving.
After the debate, Perriello admitted that the president’s appearance in his district just days before the election carried some risks.
“There are some people down here who are very excited to see him come down,” Perriello said of Obama. “And there are a couple of people who will be excited to see him go.”