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With new poll, Democrats make case that Perriello race is still competitive

Ben Pershing

Updated 1:15 p.m.
Democrats released a new poll Tuesday that showed U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) in a dead heat with state Sen. Robert Hurt (R) as Perriello and his party seek to combat the perception that his reelection might be slipping out of reach.

With the media focused on whether the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has decided to cut off financial support from Perriello and some other endangered lawmakers, the DCCC released a survey Tuesday by Global Strategy Group showing Hurt leading Perriello in the 5th district, 44 percent to 42 percent, well within the poll's 4.9 percent margin of error. Independent candidate Jeffrey Clark drew 6 percent. "These results confirm what every reputable pollster has shown -- this race is neck and neck," said DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson.

Surveys of the race have been all over the map, but the new one is definitely the closest. Two different polls conducted by SurveyUSA for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke -- one in July and one in August -- showed Hurt ahead by 23 and 26 points, respectively. (Perriello's campaign was extremely critical of those polls' methodology.) Another August survey, taken by Ayres McHenry & Associates for the pro-Republican group American Action Forum, showed Hurt winning by just 6 points.

Whatever the actual margin, both Perriello and the DCCC have a keen interest this week in combating the media narrative that the 5th district contest might be slipping down the hierarchy of competitive races. A New York Times story Sunday reported that Democrats may steer money away as "several races could quickly move out of their reach" -- including Perriello's.

The story did not suggest that the DCCC had made an affirmative decision to withhold financial help from Perriello, and the idea that the national party will have tough decisions to make is certainly not a new one. For its part, the DCCC quickly attempted some damage control. "Today's New York Times story erroneously suggests that the DCCC has decided not to allocate resources to specific campaigns. That simply is not the case," DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in a statement issued Sunday.

But the Times story still managed to kick up dust on both sides of the aisle. The Hurt campaign suggested that reporters should ask Perriello this question at a rally Monday: "How does Congressman Perriello feel about being abandoned by Democrat leadership after being a loyal foot soldier for their agenda over the past two years?" And liberal blogs lashed out at the DCCC. "Yes, I understand that this is politics, and that it can be ruthlessly Machiavellian. But seriously, DCCC, do you really expect activists to give you money and support when you do @#$@ like this?" asked a blogger on Blue Virginia.

The race may not actually turn on whether the DCCC does or does not decide to provide financial support to Perriello's campaign. The Democrat had roughly eight times as much cash on hand as Hurt as of June 30, and he has been using that money on the airwaves. Perriello went up with a spot last month attacking Hurt for skipping a debate at which Perriello and Clark appeared. And Perriello is now up with another negative television ad, titled "Robert Hurt: Lobbyists' Best Friend."

The primary topic of the ad is the Perriello camp's contention that Hurt voted for a law in 2007 that led to repeated increases in Virginians' utility bills. This charge has been the subject of fierce debate between the two candidates. In its "fact check" of the new ad, Hurt's campaign argues that the rate increases in question were based on an earlier law, not the 2007 measure, and cites Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as agreeing with that assertion. Perriello's campaign contends the issue is clear and Hurt "denies reality" by saying otherwise.

The three best-known nonpartisan election analysts all consider the 5th district race highly competitive. The Rothenberg Political Report rates it "Toss-up/Tilt Republican" while the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics both call the contest a "toss-up."

By Ben Pershing  |  September 7, 2010; 11:52 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Virginia Congressional Races , Ben Pershing , Election 2010 , Robert Hurt , Tom Perriello  
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