This Is a Test

Why did Barack Obama decide to campaign for Tom Perriello?

U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello 

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Why did Barack Obama decide to campaign for Rep. Tom Perriello, of all members of the House, on the Friday before Election Day? Obama said it was a test. “We always say we want integrity from our politicians,” he told the crowd in Charlottesville. “Well you know what? This is a test case right here.”

The race to represent Virginia’s 5th District in the House does test whether a Democrat who supported most of the administration’s signature policies—and, unlike most Democrats, campaigned on them—can survive. But it’s also a test for Obama, particularly whether he can gin up the same levels of enthusiasm that drove Democrats to the polls in 2008.

To that end, Obama and Perriello did everything to make 2010 seem like 2008. “Two years ago, we defied the pundits,” said Perriello in his speech. “Two years ago, we rejected everyone else’s definition of what is possible in politics and turned Virginia blue for the first time.” Obama explained why voters who came out in 2008 should really come out this time: “2008, that wasn’t the end goal. It wasn’t to elect a president. It was to keep building a movement for change.” He also said that while the initial magic wears off, the need for good policymaking doesn’t. “The inauguration, that fades,” he said. “Beyoncé was singing, Bono was there. All that stuff fades. But that spirit can’t fade.”

It’s clear why Obama likes Perriello. Perriello’s message is, in short, “more of the same.” But whereas Republicans say that as if it’s a bad thing, Perriello emphasizes the good. At a time when many Democrats are distancing themselves from their party’s accomplishments, Perriello is doubling down. He defends health care reform and the stimulus package, both of which he voted for. (He voted against Wall Street reform, but only because it didn’t go far enough.) His decision to embrace his record—and large parts of Obama’s—helps Obama argue that not all Democrats are spurning him. That seemed to be the message when Obama mentioned Perriello favorably in his “The Daily Show” appearance on Wednesday.

Perriello’s double-down strategy is especially bold—or foolish, depending how you view it—given that Virginia’s 5th District is historically Republican. In retrospect, his victory in 2008 looks like a fluke. He beat the six-term Republican incumbent, Virgil Goode, by about 700 votes—the closest margin in the country. Not even Obama won the district. But the blue tide, combined with Goode’s penchant for talking about “anchor babies,” pushed Perriello over the threshold.

No matter how many campaign stops Obama makes, Perriello can’t count on the same wave this time around. Voters have soured on the administration. Democratic enthusiasm is down. (Perriello says his voters are an exception.) In parts of his district, unemployment is above 20 percent.

Another difference between now and 2008 is that voters now have a sense of what “change” is. This is good and bad. On the one hand, Perriello talked about students getting Pell grants, homeowners getting loans, and sick people getting care they previously would have been denied thanks to legislation he voted for. On the other hand, bragging about concrete changes gives his opponent specific programs or policies to rail against rather than generalized rhetoric about tax hikes and growing government.

But Perriello is still going for the Hail Mary. He has help, to put it mildly. Outside groups have poured millions of dollars into the race, including $1.6 million from liberal organizations like the League of Conservation Voters in the last 10 days. His opponent, state senator Robert Hurt, is also getting outside aid, but not as much as Perriello.

As for whether Obama’s appearance will help or hurt, Perriello argues for the former. “Look, I haven’t agreed with every decision the president has made,” he says. (He says this a lot.) “But there was a group of people who said we’re not going to let another Depression happen on our watch. Either you stand with the people trying to solve it, or you stand with the people who caused it.”

Obama may help in deep-blue Charlottesville, but the rest of the district is a different story. Perriello spent the first half of the day in Martinsville, Va., a town near the North Carolina border that’s about as far from Charlottesville as you can get—geographically and politically. Martinsville has been in a recession a lot longer then the rest of the country. For decades, it was a manufacturing town specializing in textiles and furniture. DuPont Chemical opened the world’s largest nylon plant there in 1941. But in the 1990s, one factory after another shut down. The local economy still hadn’t recovered when the nationwide recession hit.

“It’s important to explain what happened,” Perriello says. People blame Democrats for the state of the economy, he says, but that’s not fair. The economy was terrible when the Democrats entered office. They averted a disaster the Republicans created. He’s since been focused on the economy “like a laser”—and that includes passing health care reform. “It all goes back to the big idea: How will America out-compete the world?” For example, he says, we’re not going to beat China if our health care system is dragging down businesses.

Perriello is happy to make the case for extending Democratic rule. But the strategy now seems to be less about persuading on-the-fence voters than mobilizing his northern, urban base. Hence the Obama rally. In Charlottesville, University of Virginia students started gathering at the gate to the pavilion Friday morning. Many students from out of town have registered there in order to vote. In the final days, Perriello will keep crisscrossing the district. But no matter how much time he spends shaking hands in Martinsville—he’s visited the place 76 times, he says—his fate is in the hands of the believers.Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.