18 months after President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (approved by congressional Democrats with virtually no Republican support or input), the promised recovery appears to be more bust than boom, while unemployment remains higher than the administration’s projected worst-case scenarios. Facing this continued economic uncertainty, Americans are frustrated and angry; polling data consistently shows widespread public dissatisfaction with a federal government that seems incapable of ending its spending binge. Yet in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, public opposition to the spending in Washington has not stopped Rep. Tom Perriello from campaigning on his record as a big spender—at least initially.
For his first television ad of the general election campaign, Rep. Perriello aired a humorous, well-produced ad touting the congressman’s diligence in bringing jobs to the economically distressed 5th District. Featuring a dirty and disheveled congressman, Perriello is seen running Ethernet cables in schools, building trails in parks and working in a barn (in which he steps in cow manure). While the ad makes sense considering the above-the-state-average unemployment rate in parts of the 5th and the success candidate Bob McDonnell enjoyed in the district last November by pledging to bring jobs to the Commonwealth, Rep. Perriello’s ad touts jobs created and paid for by the stimulus, not by private sector entrepreneurs and investors—a fact that was not lost on Jay Warren, political reporter for Roanoke NBC-affiliate WSLS: “Still, there are big question marks about just how many real jobs the stimulus plan created, particularly compared to how much money was spent. In essence was it worth the price tag?” Undeterred by this tough question, Rep. Perriello recently praised the stimulus when appearing at the groundbreaking ceremony for Danville’s new Robertson Bridge, a project financed with $23 million in stimulus funds. While campaigning on one’s ability to “bring home the bacon” might be a common electoral strategy for members of Congress, in the current political atmosphere, how can Rep. Perriello believe such a strategy will be successful?
Finally Rep. Perriello may have realized that bringing home the bacon will not safeguard his seat in 2010: a poll conducted for Roanoke CBS-affiliate WDBJ-7 by SurveyUSA released on July 20 showed Perriello trailing Republican challenger state Sen. Robert Hurt by 23 percentage points (even with independent conservative Jeff Clark on the ballot). Later in the week, a mailer from the Perriello campaign arrived in mailboxes across the district citing an article from the Charlottesville The Daily Progress, which heralded the congressman “the most frugal [member of Virginia’s congressional delegation] with taxpayer money in 2009” because his congressional office spent $270,000 less than budgeted during 2009. While Rep. Perriello may attempt to reinvent himself as a fiscal conservative, it is difficult to reconcile his new-found “frugality” with his earlier—and much-touted—vote for the stimulus (a “strategic investment,” as he prefers to call it), a $787 billion act financed with borrowed money. Time will tell if Rep. Perriello can convince enough 5th District voters that he has seen the light on spending, but in the meantime, he will likely continue facing tough questions from his constituents and local reporters alike.