Candidates Jostle for Position in Virginia Race

The race to take on Rep. Tom Perriello is heating up in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, where Republicans are jockeying over who holds the strongest conservative credentials and the best chance of ousting the incumbent Democrat.

“Perriello’s voting record obviously makes him a vulnerable target, but he is a strong campaigner, he is very active in the district and he is very visible,” said Bob Hollsworth, a longtime political analysts in Virginia. “My guess is a strong Republican could beat him, but he will not be easy to beat.”

Since he won the seat a year ago, the 35-year-old Perriello has been in Republican crosshairs, and some suggest he is the most vulnerable incumbent heading into the 2010 election. That’s because the Freshman Democrat represents a conservative leaning district that narrowly favored Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential race and swung heavily for Republican Robert F. McDonnell in the Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election. Plus, conservative have eagerly criticized him for supporting President Obama’s health care push, trying Guantanamo Bay prisoners in New York, and cap-and-trade.

Now, a year out from the election, the political drama is kicking into high gear. Voters in the 5th District, which runs from Charlottesville to the North Carolina border, have been treated to negative robo-calls, party infighting, false statements and numerous reports about the Danville Tea Party’s plan to burn Periello and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in effigy to protest health care reform. (The plan was later canceled.)

The next big step — and possible fireworks — in the race comes Dec. 12 when the 5th District Republican Congressional Committee votes on whether to nominate a candidate through a primary or convention. The decision will play a large part in determining how the Republicans candidates woo support in the coming months.

Among those running: Kenneth C. Boyd, a member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors; Feda Kidd-Morton, a Fluvanna County biology teacher and Republican activist; Michael McPadden, a Northwest Airlines captain; and Laurence Verga, a real estate investor. There is also Bradley Rees, an assembly line worker from Bedford County and FairTax advocate, who is running as a third party conservative candidate.

The number of candidates and the possible convention format makes it hard to predict who will come out on top.

But, arguably, the best known commodity and early frontrunner for the Republican nod is state Sen. Robert Hurt, a native of Pittsylvania County, where he lives and runs his low office. Hurt has represented large swaths of the Congressional District in the Virginia House of Delegates, from 2002 to 2008, and now serves in the Virginia Senate.

“Hurt has more elected experience, he seems to have tremendous support from the [Republican National Campaign Committee] already, but these other folks think they can beat him on the grassroots level,” Hollsworth said. “In a big, multiple person, race, no one knows the kind of dynamic that can occur at an internal primary or convention level.”

In an effort to strengthen his chances, Hurt has hired well-known conservative operative, Chris LaCivita. LaCivita was mastermind behind the successful and controversial Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004 and conservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s landslide victory in November’s attorney general’s race.

LaCivita told HUMAN EVENTS that Hurt “is a guy who doesn’t just say he is a conservative."

"He has an established voting record on issues of life, marriage, you can go on down the line [on conservative issues]. So, from that perspective, people are comfortable with Robert," he said. "They know he is a solid conservative. They know he has represented the area well. So, it’s not like you’re nominating someone who has two percent name ID and no experience to go up against what is going to be one of the top three congressional races in the country from a Republican standpoint.”

Others disgree.

Verga, who moved to Virginia from California this decade, says Hurt’s conservative credentials are not as strong as he claims. He drove home the point in Dec. 2 robo-calls to more than 5,000 households in which a narrator asks: "Did you know State Senator Robert Hurt increased your taxes by $1.4 billion and voted for an unconstitutional transportation law? Robert Hurt is no conservative. Our best chance of defeating Congressman Perriello is nominating a principled conservative like Laurence Verga.”

He also has falsely claimed that the National Republican Campaign Committee has endorsed Hurt, casting him as the choice of the national establishment in Washington, D.C. — not the people of the 5th District.

“The Republican establishment did not learn their lesson from the absolute debacle that we witnessed this past fall in upstate New York,” Verga wrote said in a recent op-ed on the website “I know they haven’t because they are again backing a moderate candidate in another critical Congressional election. We all remember the rightful firestorm that erupted across the country and throughout upstate New York when, in smoke-filled back rooms, the Washington-based GOP establishment lined up behind the most liberal candidate in a special election for New York’s 23rd Congressional seat.”

But NRCC spokesman Andy Sere told HUMAN EVENTS, “we have not endorsed a candidate in that race.” He said an endorsement is “unlikely," and that the NRCC has promoted Verga on their website. He also said it should become clearer who is best fit to take on Perriello after the fourth quarter fundraising reports are released late next month.

"Tom Perriello is an incumbent who gets all the Washington special interest money," Sere said. "It is going to be an expensive race  … We believe there are several strong candidates in that field who can beat Tom Periello,” Sere said. “They all bring different backgrounds to the table and local republicans it is going to be up to them and decide who they think is best equipped to beat Tom Perriello.”

Verga’s attempt to cast himself as the conservative alternative to Hurt mirrors the strategy conservative Doug Hoffman employed in the New York’s 23rd District against Republican Dede Scozzafava, who later dropped out of the race and endorsed Democrat Bill Owens.

But, political observers and Hurt’s camp, say aside from his support of Gov. Warner’s tax increase, his record shows his political philosophy is worlds apart from Scozzafava’s liberal bent.

“To say or attribute one vote out of thousands as an indication that you are not a conservative is frankly insulting to the people who have been supporting Robert continuously over the years,” LaCivita said. “There are a lot of candidates who claim to be conservatives, but have never cast one vote on the issue of conservatism. Talk is cheap. Robert has an established voting record of opposing tax increases (minus one), an established record of supporting life. He voted for the marriage amendment, voted against cilvi unions, has had nothing less than A + from the [National Rifle Association] and has tremendous scorecards with The Family Foundation. That is not equal to a liberal or a moderate as some of his defectors might say.”