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Can Jeffrey Clark play the spoiler in race against Perriello?

The race in Virginia's 5th congressional district already has a large and colorful cast of characters. There's the freshman Democrat, Rep. Tom Perriello, seeking to hold on to the Republican-leaning seat in a tough cycle for incumbents. There's the GOP frontrunner, state Sen. Robert Hurt, who looks likely to win the nomination even as some conservatives grumble about his record. And there are the six other Republican candidates, none of whom appear to have the support necessary to topple Hurt in the June 8 primary.

Now there's one more player on the stage -- Jeffrey A. Clark, a political novice who so dislikes Hurt that he is threatening to run for the seat as an Independent if Hurt is the Republican nominee. Clark has garnered a burst of media attention in recent weeks, earning stories in the Lynchburg News & Advance, Politico, and even The Fix. All of those clips focus on the idea that Clark might just siphon off enough votes from Hurt to hand victory to Perriello.

But is that a realistic scenario? Is Clark a viable spoiler candidate?

Among political operatives and analysts, there are two schools of thought on that question.

The first theory is that there is enough dissatisfaction with Hurt among conservatives -- primarily because of his vote in favor of then-governor Mark R. Warner's (D) tax-raising 2004 budget -- that a candidate can secure a certain level of support simply by not being Hurt. That's what Clark believes, and he said Tuesday that he would happily support any Republican in November as long as Hurt doesn't get the nomination.

"We've made a pledge to the six other Republican candidates that if they put together the support to win the primary, we will drop our campaign and support them," Clark said.

Clark said he and the other Republicans were all in agreement that Hurt was the wrong man for the job. "That's the common denominator here," he said.

Hurt skipped a debate Tuesday night at Liberty University, where the other GOP hopefuls took turns criticizing the frontrunner. Property developer Jim McKelvey, who is seen as perhaps the biggest threat to Hurt in the Republican contest because of his personal wealth, has already suggested he might back a third-party candidate rather than Hurt.

Isaac Wood, an expert on state races at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he would be watching the also-rans in the GOP primary to see who they endorse.

"It's entirely possible that at least one if not several of those losing candidates could look elsewhere with their support," Wood said.

Tea Party groups are active in the 5th district, which stretches from north of Charlottesville down to the North Carolina border, and could well have an effect in November if they throw some of their support behind a particular candidate in November. Such unity may be hard to achieve; though Clark is a member of the Danville Tea Party, other members of the group are supporting supporting a range of candidates, including Hurt.

"I don't consider myself the 'Tea Party candidate,'" Clark said.

Clark acknowledges that "it's an uphill battle for an Independent" to make a good showing in a congressional race, and Hurt's campaign argues that Clark may as well run as a Democrat, given that a strong bid by him would have the practical effect of boosting Perriello.

"If Jeff Clark's on the ballot then we have two people Robert Hurt runs against who want to see Nancy Pelosi as Speaker rather than just one," said Chris LaCivita, a consultant to Hurt's campaign.

Another Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the race, made a more practical case against Clark.

"Bottom line is, he has no name ID, no money and no capability to get money," said the strategist. "He will get the standard 2 percent protest vote and that's it. No one seems to know who the guy is, he just came out of nowhere -- no community support whatsoever. He won't be a factor."

It's true that Clark has never run for office before, nor has he been particularly active beyond some young Republican events he attended years ago. He and his wife run a microbiology lab in Danville that does water testing, and he also conducts home inspections. Clark does not appear to be a well-known figure in the community, and he said he has not raised enough money to trigger the Federal Election Commission's reporting requirements.

But Clark has been gathering the signatures necessary to get on the ballot as an Independent. While only 1,000 valid signatures are needed by June 8, Clark said he would submit more than twice that number because "we're expecting a pretty thorough challenge" from local Republican officials.

In 2008, Perriello beat Rep. Virgil Goode (R) by just 727 votes, with no other candidates on the ballot. In 2006, an Independent Green candidate got 1,928 votes -- about 1 percent. Could Clark get that much support or more? And will the race be close enough that Clark's votes might tip the contest in Perriello's favor?

"I'm not sure it's a likelihood," Wood said, "but it's still a real possibility."

By Ben Pershing  |  May 26, 2010; 10:18 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Virginia Congressional Races , Ben Pershing , Robert Hurt , Tom Perriello  
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