How did a Democratic challenger defeat a Republican incumbent in an enormous rural district in southern Virginia? A Democratic group in Charlottesville called Left of Center organized a forum on that topic Monday night. Speakers included three staffers on Tom Perriello's victorious campaign: Brian Bills, his personal assistant; Kelli Palmer, who registered African American voters in the southern most part of Virginia's Fifth District; and Rachel Klarman, lead field organizer for the southern counties. Also speaking were two newspaper reporters, Will Goldsmith of the C'ville Weekly and Lindsay Barnes of the Hook. And providing some historical context was Fred Hudson, chair of the Fifth District Democratic Committee.
All of the speakers addressed the reasons Perriello had won. Of course he won by only 0.2 percent, but the big question was how he'd managed to make it close at all. The loser, Virgil Goode, had always carried at least 60 percent of the vote in the past. Each speaker provided different reasons for the upset, not because they disagreed with each other, but because there were a great many factors that had all come together. The speakers all steered clear, however, of the biggest, if least heart-warming reason for Perriello's success: money.
Perriello brought in almost as much cash as Goode. He spent it as I would want a candidate to spend it, but not necessarily how a candidate has to spend it to win in our corrupt system. Perriello had 30 people on staff and paid rent for eight offices. According to Bills, Perriello spent more on his field operation than any other congressional campaign in the country ever has. But what about the fortune needed to buy back essential little snippets of time on the television airwaves we own but do not control? That's where the powers of party and money combined. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C., and the independent group My Rural America spent over a million dollars on ads for Perriello and against Goode. In contrast, the Republican Congressional Committee and the National Right to Life Committee only spent $150,000 on pro-Goode and anti-Perriello ads.
The speakers on Monday all seemed to agree that the field work and the ads had worked well together, that people who had seen the ads late in the campaign had been able to connect them with their memories of having met Perriello or his staffers or volunteers earlier in the year. Over the summer, Perriello's staff and volunteers did a great deal of charity work in addition to traditional campaigning. That was one factor in the campaign's success at generating more media coverage than the incumbent.
Another major factor that was discussed on Monday was the incumbent himself, Virgil Goode, who had become a recognized failure as a congressman and who ran a terrible and complacent campaign (so complacent that no major signs of vote theft or suppression arose). Goode's obsession with bashing immigrants, Muslims, and gays made him less relevant to voters than a candidate who talked about jobs. While Goode denied that he hated immigrants when I blogged about it, Perriello was able to convince voters that Goode's immigration obsession alienated him from even his own party in Congress, making Goode less effective.
Perriello talked about religion constantly during the campaign, not to mention country music and NASCAR. But on the traditional pseudo issues of cultural division like abortion and gay-bashing, he did not adopt right-wing positions, as Goode, the former Democrat, had done, and as Virginia Governor and incoming chair of the Democratic National Committee Tim Kaine has done. Perriello mocked Goode's tendency to answer questions about the miserable economy of Southside Virginia with comments on same-sex marriage.
Obama boosted interest in this election in a district that is 24 percent African American but had previously seen only 16 percent of voting by African Americans. Yet Bills pointed out that Perriello was the only contested candidate in the state who actually received more votes than Obama. Hudson noted that Perriello actually swamped Obama north of the James River (where the progressive city of Charlottesville is) and trailed him south of there. Yet it was in the southern towns that Perriello gained the most over the performance of previous challengers to Goode: up 20 percentage points in Martinsville and 14 in Danville.
Palmer said that the campaign had sent a mailing to every known unregistered voter, and had then sent registration forms. Then they had used robocalls that said "If you need help registering to vote, Press 1." Pressing 1 took you to a real person. They also hired and recruited aggressive staff and volunteers. Some of them would drive up to anyone on the curb, ask if they were registered, and if not jump out of the van with a clipboard and register them on the spot. Another technique was to look for houses with lots of cars and activity, walk in the front door or the back yard and start registering everyone. Palmer said they were able to register 5,500 new voters in her area in nine weeks, heavily young voters. In all, 50,000 new people registered since the last election (many registered by the good work of the Virginia Organizing Project). Palmer registered whole families, including elderly black voters who wanted to know what they would have to pay and what test they would have to take -- vestiges of Virginian traditions.
Klarman pointed out that Goode's seniority and membership on the appropriations committee were hurdles to be overcome. Perriello, she said, was able to convince people that he would work harder and be more effective, and in fact he campaigned much longer and harder than Goode. There was also the problem of undervotes. Some 15,000 people had voted for president four years ago and not voted for a congress member. According to Hudson, solving this problem was likely aided by the Obama campaign's decision not to provide yard signs. This allowed the district to create 3-way signs for Obama, Senate candidate Mark Warner, and Perriello. This was important for those who still thought of Goode as a Democrat, as well as those who were big fans of Warner, a former governor. Some 10,000 people voted for McCain, Warner, and Perriello.
The discussion on Monday night must have been heaven for people who love political strategy (and isn't most everyone now an amateur strategist?). But I still tend to focus on what is generally called "the issues" or "policy positions." I want to know what a candidate will do if elected. There was no discussion in Monday's presentations of what policy positions helped or hurt the campaign, much less of what Perriello would be working on first. Back in April, I had interviewed Perriello for an hour on a radio show (audio clip) and I'd struggled to get him to commit to any progressive positions. I'd been frustrated by his open intention to simply obey his party and its president. He wouldn't back single-payer health coverage or anything else I asked about. (Of course Goode had run ads calling his previous challenger a supporter of "socialized medicine," "amnesty for illegals," etc.) People I know have spoken more privately with Perriello and come away thinking he was very progressive, albeit without any specifics.
Bills called Perriello a "conviction candidate." He said that his guy did not triangulate and pander like Bill Clinton, but told it like he saw it, and he saw it very much from the left. He was not bound to any party. And so forth. But the instant that someone asked a question from the floor, Bills retracted "left-leaning" as not the correct characterization for Perriello. None of the speakers touched on what the positions were that Perriello had expressed with such conviction. Members of the audience discussed campaigns for lobbying Perriello to take some good positions, but even among the audience members I spoke to the idea of anyone challenging Perriello in a primary in 2010 was unthinkable. Hudson said that he believed Perriello could win the general election again, and that we could ensure that he be able to remain in Congress as long as he wants. Hudson said this as if such an outcome must unquestionably be everyone's goal, and quite regardless of whether Perriello does what we want while he's on the job.
When I asked about policy proposals that had had an impact on the victory, Bills said that Perriello's economic plan for jobs was a big selling point. It was at this point in the discussion that the speakers touched on Goode's failures to relate to his struggling constituents' need for more than targets of hatred. Lindsay added that Perriello's smarts and long-windedness played well in a race against the bumbling Goode in a year in which President Bush's feeblemindedness had made wonkishness attractive.
Perriello's staffers seemed extremely smart, dedicated, and passionate. They had won an upset election over the most racist and hateful member of our national legislature by registering more people to vote and investing in grassroots organizing, while giving 10 percent of their time to charity. Regardless of what Perriello does, his campaign was inspiring. I wish I could tell you what he'll do. I wish I could provide Perriello's own perspective. A large coalition of peace and justice organizations that I work with has been requesting a meeting with him for weeks and has been getting turned away.
I expect that the audio of Monday's forum will show up here: