Freshman Democrat takes center-stage in cap and trade's political war

In the weeks leading up to the final House showdown over the comprehensive climate bill, few lobbyists and advocacy groups paid much attention to Rep. Tom Perriello.

The freshman Democrat from southern Virginia, who has little name recognition outside his district and little influence over the legislation, declared a couple of weeks before the vote that he would support the bill. And so much of the media attention and lobbying efforts were on the powerful committee chairmen and a number Midwestern Democrats that seemingly held the fate of the bill in their hands.

Much has changed in two weeks.

Since Democrats squeezed out a 219-212 vote on the legislation, no single member of Congress has been the subject of as much scrutiny -- and political sparring -- as Perriello. His district has seen a deluge of ads from all sides unmatched anywhere else in the country.

The National Republican Congressional Committee singled out Perriello for a television campaign in the days after the vote that accused the lawmaker of supporting legislation that would pave the way for massive cost increases to consumers. Several days later, interest groups on the left fired back with their own TV ads that praised the bill as a job-creator for the region.

The early campaign-style fighting highlights the political potency of the climate vote, with Republicans in particular expressing confidence that it is the kind of vote that could cost a number of moderate Democrats their seats.

For both sides, the fight in Virginia represents an early test of the political message for 2010.

"With the election 15 months off, I doubt much of these current [advertising] will have lasting value for either side," said Larry Sabato, a political expert with the University of Virginia, which sits in Perriello's district. "But neither side can let the other monopolize the dialogue.

"The Soviet Union may be history, but it is just like the old U.S.-U.S.S.R. missile race," Sabato added. "One side gets a new weapon, then the other side gets an equivalent to maintain the balance of terror."


Perriello has loudly defended his vote as the morally correct course of action, regardless of whether it costs him a seat in Congress, and aggressively criticized House Republicans for their own attacks on the bill.

"Republicans are putting their partisan interests for 2010 ahead of their patriotic interest -- you can win an election on that but you can lose your soul," Perriello said in an interview last week.

Such comments have made him a darling of the left, which has praised Perriello's vote as politically courageous in the face of tough political circumstances, painting an even larger bull's-eye for the right.

An unlikely star

The 5th District stretches across much of south-central Virginia and north into Charlottesville. It is overwhelmingly rural and agriculture is its main economic engine. The district does have some manufacturing, particularly textiles, but it is certainly not one of the heavily industrialized or energy-producing districts that have been central to the political fight over the energy bill.

A Yale-educated former humanitarian worker, Perriello won the seat by 727 votes over six-term incumbent Rep. Virgil Goode (R) last year.

And even though President Obama fared better in the district than either of the previous two Democratic presidential candidates, he still lost here by 3 percentage points, making Perriello an obvious target for next fall.

Republicans believe that Perriello's win was a fluke, created by unique political circumstances and an unprepared incumbent. And the climate vote -- combined with that of the economic stimulus -- has painted a picture of a lawmaker who is fundamentally out of step with his constituents, the GOP contends.

Perriello openly admits that his vote is unpopular in some corners of his district and may carry short-term political consequences. But perhaps no moderate Democrat has also been as vocal in declaring that vote as the correct course of action and the kind that will ultimately win over his constituents.

"These are the kinds of bills that we came to Washington to pass," Perriello said. "What I think you're seeing is a new generation of politicians that are more interested in solving the issue than scoring the political points."

Adding that even if voters punish some Democrats in 2010, the long-term impact of the legislation will result in more voters turning away from the Republican Party. "It may not backfire [on the Republicans] next year but it will backfire over time," he said. "I think it's a short term political risk for the Democrats, but its a long-term risk for Republicans because of the national security and economic impacts."

Republicans dismiss those kinds of arguments, arguing that Perriello's efforts to portray himself as doing the morally correct thing are only coming off an apparent lack of understanding for the concerns of his constituents.

"Tom Perriello's vote to kill middle-class jobs in his own district isn't a profile in courage -- it's a case study in callousness," said Andy Seré, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "No matter how righteously cosmopolitan Perriello fancies himself to be, it doesn't excuse him from representing the unique values and interests of central and southside Virginia."

Perriello does not have a challenger yet, though Goode is mulling a bid to reclaim the seat and is expected to make a decision soon. The former congressman made an appearance at a recent protest against Perriello's climate vote, saying in a TV interview that he was "committed to this cause and the cause of good solid government" regardless of whether he runs for Congress.

Perriello fights back

Even as Perriello touts the long-term benefits of the legislation, he has spent much of July attempting to explain himself to voters and build a viable political message for the short-term.

Just a few days after the vote, Perriello met with business officials and other community leaders back in the district to discuss his vote. Last week, he unveiled a "New Energy for the 5th District" plan at a local event, with small business owners and energy developers again standing by his side.

The blueprint appears to come directly from the playbook of President Obama and other Democratic leaders, focusing almost exclusively on the idea that the legislation will create jobs and making virtually no mention of cap and trade or greenhouse gas emissions.

"We have the entrepreneurs, research universities, and farmers that can transform our hard-hit area into a hard-charging economic engine generating jobs that cannot be outsourced and renewing, as each American generation must, our reach for an ever-expanding horizon of freedom," states the document. "In these tough times, we must have the courage to think beyond merely surviving as a region and dare to think about how we can thrive again."

Perriello envisions that the energy bill will bring increased energy efficiency, spur the development of bio-refineries and landfill gas-to-energy projects and will create a system of "community-based energy" that reduces costs and keeps jobs in the district.

Meanwhile, the vote has struck a chord with the conservative voters that reside in Perriello's district.

The Jefferson Area Tea Party -- one of the "tea party" groups that has held rallies across the country in recent months -- last week organized a protest outside of Perriello's Charlottesville office. The protest drew more than 100 people and Bill Hay, chairman of the group, said it is clear that the issue has started to resonate even with voters who are not typically tuned-in to such Washington debates.

"There's people out there who have not paid a lot of attention prior to this that are now starting to see what's happening," said Bill Hay, chairman of the Jefferson Area Tea Party. "I think it's something that's going to hang on for a while."

Hay argued that many voters simply did not buy the argument that the legislation would create jobs -- pointing to similar promises that Democratic leaders made in relation to the stimulus bill -- and were more fearful about the possibility of increasing costs. "If the cost of energy is going to go up, it doesn't take a Ph.D. in economics to realize that's going to trickle down to the everyday person," Hay said.

Newspapers in Perriello's district have also received in a string of letters from readers angry about the vote.

"That vote has earned Perriello plenty of scorn on these pages," the Madison Messenger wrote in an editorial last week, though it defended the vote. "The letters to the editor over the past week have not been part of an organized letter-writing campaign. Instead, they are genuine expressions of outrage from consistently conservative members of our community who are concerned about the future of our country."

But Perriello's unflinching support for his vote has also very clearly won him praise from interest groups that have flooded the district with ads designed to provide political cover for the incumbent and to reinforce his message.

The League of Conservation Voters late last week became the most recent group to run a 30-second television spot praising Perriello for "fighting to make American a global leader in clean energy." At the same time, the ad blasted House Republicans for launching attacks against Perriello that were "wrong" and a "misrepresentation."

"Representative Perriello cast a critical vote for a comprehensive clean energy jobs bill that will create the industries of tomorrow and make the U.S. a global leader in new energy technology," LCV President Gene Karpinski said last week. "These Republican leaders in Washington continue to cling to Big Oil's failed energy policies and Karl Rove's somewhat casual relationship with the truth."

The liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change has aired a similar 30-second spot and is raising money on Perriello's behalf.

The White House announced shortly after the energy bill vote that it would launch a rural tour, which will bring Cabinet secretaries to rural districts and will focus heavily on green jobs. The first energy event on the tour will take place in Perriello's district on Saturday and feature Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Impact for 2010?

Officials on both sides openly admit that it is too soon to tell just how much of an impact the vote will have by the time Election Day 2010 rolls around.

At the moment, the energy issue is being used primarily to rile up each party's political base, Sabato said. "Democrats think the bill is terrific, and Republicans think it is awful," he said. "The battle is partly to motivate base voters for a relatively low turnout midterm election."

Given that turnout for the midterm election is likely to be nowhere near last November's presidential contest, each party's political base will play a much more pivotal role in 2010 than it did last year. Republicans are counting on those dynamics to help them reclaim the district, arguing that Perriello benefited from artificially high turnout by University of Virginia students and black voters that will not be there in 2010.

Sabato also pointed out that the impact of the issue will depend on just how the rest of the debate plays out. If, for example, the Senate never passes the bill, it could make it harder for Republicans to build a campaign around the issue.

"Everyone knows that the average voter doesn't have a clue what the truth is about the cap-and-trade bill, or what is in it. Many voters aren't even aware that it passed the House," Sabato said. "And let's remember that it may never pass the Senate, which will make it more difficult to use it as an issue."

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