A few months ago it seemed the towns around Lynchburg, Virginia would be ground zero for a political shift — Republican voters scoffed at an establishment favorite candidate as they set their sights on the fifth district. Now, the conservative favorite Laurence Verga has deflated, losing campaign staffers who say the more moderate Republican state Sen. Robert Hurt is all-but-certain to handily capture the party nomination for the central Virginia district on June 8. That would pit Hurt — who drew ire for backing a 2004 state tax increase but is otherwise a pretty standard Republican — against freshman Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat who won a GOP seat during the 2008 Obama tidal wave. He’s vulnerable but has amassed a campaign war chest of more than $1.5 million.
But the GOP isn’t free and clear yet of an intraparty battle, with yet another “true” conservative threatening to run as an independent in the general election if Hurt clears the seven-candidate field. Jeffrey Clark says he’ll make a third party run if Hurt wins the GOP nomination, according to the Washington Post. Clark told the Lynchburg News and Advance that he views Hurt as a “situational conservative.”
There are few polls and Republican sources on the ground say it’s possible something would surprise them next Tuesday, but even former Verga loyalists told me privately that he’s toast and Hurt will win.
TPM readers will remember that Verga was the preferred “conservative” in the race, boosted by Laura Ingraham, Joe the Plumber and others. Hurt’s vote for then-Gov. Mark Warner’s tax increase as a state delegate made him a target of the right, but he actually went on to win higher office. Hurt even made peace with Grover Norquist, who once put Hurt’s face on a “Least Wanted” poster along with Warner (D) as a tax raiser.
Now Hurt’s in such good standing he didn’t bother showing up to a planned debate, campaigning in Martinsville in Southside Virginia instead. But as the Lynchburg News and Advance points out, he was there in spirit as each candidate spent the debate attacking his record in the state house:
Jim McKelvey, of Franklin County, called Hurt “a career politician who, in my opinion, will be a lap dog for the Republican Party like Perriello is a lap dog for the Democratic Party.”
McKelvey this morning sent an email to supporters blasting Hurt as a Republican In Name Only. An excerpt:
This is not a year for a tax and spend, RINO politician. This is the time for a true leader who is not concerned about partisan rhetoric and political games.
Hurt had $121,750 in the bank as of the last filing date of May 19, showing better numbers in the most recent report after previously anemic fundraising. Only Michael McPadden has more money in the bank, $164,182, thanks in part to loaning himself nearly $215,000.
Verga had $60,664 cash on hand, and that’s after he loaned himself more than $275,000.
The other candidates are McKelvey, county supervisor Kenneth Boyd, Ron Lee Ferrin and Feda Kidd Morton.
The district voted 51%-48% for John McCain (R) in 2008, but Perriello unseated Rep. Virgil Goode (R) by 727 votes out of over 315,000 cast. That’s one reason he’s a top target for national Republicans aiming to retake the House this fall, but when Goode opted not to run for his old seat, that left them with the wide open primary.