CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia—Rep. Tom Perriello looked so buoyant and sounded so effervescent during his concession speech Tuesday night that backers not yet aware of the final election numbers might have thought the clean energy champion was headed back to a second term in Congress.
But in this third straight, independent-instigated "wave election," voters booted Perriello and at least 60 other House Democrats out of office.
Though Democrats retained a slimmer Senate majority, the House turnabout erased significant pickups that Democrats made in 2006 and 2008. With the lower chamber flipping to the GOP, Ohio Republican John Boehner is in line to replace California Democrat Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.
Shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday, the 36-year-old Virginia Democrat—sleeves rolled up on his blue button-down shirt—hopped up on a small stage at Siips Wine Bar and Bistro as an enthusiastic crowd chanted "We love Tom!"
"I've given it everything that I've got," said Perriello, his eyes shining, after he promised to do all he could to aid his Republican challenger and winner with a transition. "This isn't about him and me. It has always been about the people of the Fifth District. I'm willing to help anyone who wants to be part of solving problems instead of playing politics."
Robert Hurt, an attorney and state senator, won the 5th Congressional District race with 51 percent of the vote to Perriello's 47 percent.
Just two years ago, Perriello eked out a 727-vote victory after a lengthy recount. He launched himself into Congress by earning 50 percent of the vote in 2008 when Virginia—but not Perriello's district—shocked the nation by tilting for President Barack Obama.
This year, however, was a base-versus-base election with significantly lower turnout than 2008. Tuesday's turnout is projected to be around 42 percent—significantly lower than the 67 percent in 2008.
Longtime political observers weren't too shocked by Perriello's loss in the large, rural and mostly conservative triangle-shaped district that stretches from the North Carolina border to a northern peak in Charlottesville, the progressive home of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia.
"Perriello's close loss doesn't change the fact that a clean energy jobs message works in that district," Jason Kowalski, policy coordinator for a coalition of advocacy organizations, 1Sky, told SolveClimate News in an interview Tuesday night. "Taking a strong stand on clean energy jobs helped Perriello with voters, but made him vulnerable to attack ads by outside groups who wanted to make an example out of him."
Observers Saw GOP Storm Approaching
This round of midterm elections—churlish, contentious and expensive affairs with a price tag of at least $4 billion—was cruel to a series of longtime and short-timer House Democrats who supported the idea of curbing heat-trapping gases by voting for the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2009.
In addition to Perriello, the list of newcomers voted out includes John Boccieri and Zack Space of Ohio, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Harry Teague of New Mexico. But it also includes old bulls such as Rick Boucher of Virginia, Ike Skelton of Missouri and John Spratt of South Carolina.
"While dirty energy interests may have unseated some supporters of climate action," Kowalski said, "they cannot change the fact that acting on climate change is not only necessary, it is a political winner."
However, Kowalski pointed out that many of the House Democrats who just lost their seat to a Republican were not climate policy advocates.
"Across the country, the trend shows that these aren't strongholds of progressive Americans all of a sudden changing their minds," he said. "These are districts that have had conservative views on national politics for quite some time. Perriello is an exception."
Perriello lost by 3.7 percent in a district that usually votes Republican by a margin of around 4 percent, Kowalski said, adding that district voters gave 56 percent of their votes to President George W. Bush in 2004.
Tireless Advocate for Clean Energy
It's no secret that Perriello votes his convictions and embraces his faith. On the stump, he constantly chattered about innovation and entrepreneurship and about how investments in clean energy could birth new industries in his economically depressed district. Just before Election Day, his campaign organized 20 events during a 24-hour cycle.
During his concession speech he mentioned that 1,800 homes in his district had been weatherized during his tenure and that he would continue to help his constituents "find a way to soldier through one of the worst times in American history."
A recent poll of likely voters in his Virginia district indicates that he was striking the right chord. Data gathered for the Natural Resources Defense Fund Action Fund reveals that voters were more likely to support Perriello's position on climate policy by a margin of 15 percent.
In the days leading up to the election, Democratic independent groups outspent Republicans in the district, according to The Washington Post.
However, money from the fossil fuels industry as well as outside money from undisclosed conservative donors played a significant role in Virginia and nationwide, Kowalski said. Conservative groups pumped almost 10 times more outside money into this cross-country campaign than the last midterm elections, according to research by transparency advocates, the Center for Responsive Politics.
"We can't ignore the role played by special interests from the oil and coal industries," Kowalski said. "An unprecedented flood of corporate cash is blocking efforts to address climate change and create a clean energy economy—efforts supported by the vast majority of Americans."
It's estimated the industries spent $70 million on energy-related attack ads during this election cycle and donated $20 million to their favorite congressional candidates, Kowalski said. That's on top of the estimated $500 million the industries spent on lobbying against climate legislation and other energy policies during the last two years.
Virginia Voters Have Their Say
Charlottesville resident Carol Yancey, who said she now regrets the vote she cast for President Obama in 2008, thought Perriello might gain an edge after the president parachuted into town for a campaign rally the Friday before Election Day. Perriello was the only House member to receive such treatment from the White House.
Yancey, a 52-year-old dialysis nurse and her husband, Hunter Yancey, had both cast their ballots for Hurt at a recreation center on Market Street in downtown Charlottesville about an hour before Virginia polls closed at 7 p.m. Hunter, 53, said energy issues were a factor in his decision to vote Republican.
Perriello's vote for the climate bill authored by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts bothered Yancey because he thinks support for a cap-and-trade system is premature.
"Until we can figure out just what the clean energies are going to be, I'm not in favor of a tax on energies," said Yancey, an environmental health and safety worker at the University of Virginia. "It's detrimental to coal and other fossil fuels and will trickle down to everything."
Even though he stated that "the planet has been heating up and cooling down since it was born," he said he does believe that human beings are contributing to global warming. And he has faith that American ingenuity will eventually create a low-carbon economy.
"Windmills, geothermal and solar are all good ideas that will take 50 or 60 years to get under way," he continued. "We all know that fossil fuels aren't the best answer. But to switch away from them so quickly is unrealistic."
Meanwhile, Perriello volunteer Blake Caravati stood outside the same recreation center in Tuesday's early evening chill politely asking voters to consider pulling the lever for the Democrat.
What Caravati admires about Perriello, he said, is that he studies every issue before making a decision, whether it be a cap-and trade-system or health care reform.
"He's a damn good congressman, no matter what party he's from," Caravati said. "He loves his job and he loves the people. He speaks not with a forked tongue at all, which is just what we need in government."
"We Have to Keep Going"
During his concession speech, the baby-faced Perriello reminded his supporters about his father's words that "Judgment Day is more important than Election Day. It's more important to do what's right than what's easy."
But that rosy outlook was little consolation for unemployed Nathan Hartshorne, a young volunteer with the League of Conservation Voters who spent six days going door-to-door for Perriello.
Clad in a green "Clean Energy Team" T-shirt, Hartshorne tried to put his candidate's loss into perspective as loyal supporters at Siips crooned "Go, Tom, Go!" after letting out a collective groan at the news of Perriello's loss.
"It's definitely upsetting," offered the Kansas native, who most recently worked on global warming issues for a nonprofit organization. "I'm more upset for what it means for Virginia and the nation because we had an environmental champion."
"If you want to make progress, you have to fight every single day," he concluded. "It's a hiccup, a big hiccup. But we have to keep going."
(Photo: courtesy Perriello For Congress)