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Rookies Take Two Tacks

Freshman Reps. Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello share some similarities in their background and how they came to Congress.

The Virginia Democrats were elected last year, wielding impressive credentials in international policy but little background in local politics. Both unseated Republican incumbents in districts that traditionally have leaned toward the GOP.

But Perriello and Nye are taking different tacks in their voting behavior and campaign styles as they prepare to seek re-election against vigorous Republican opposition.

Perriello has been more of a populist and risk-taker in his votes and public statements. On closely divided votes, Perriello has sided with his party more frequently than Nye — even though Perriello’s district, located in the mostly rural Southside area of the state, backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 election and Nye’s district, a more geographically compact area in and around Virginia Beach, backed President Barack Obama.

Perriello last year won by 727 votes over then-Rep. Virgil Goode (R) in what was one of the closest House elections of the 2008 cycle, while Nye won by the more comfortable margin of 5 points over then-Rep. Thelma Drake (R).

Nye has been running a more traditionally independent campaign that puts some distance between himself and the national party. He’s bucked Democratic leaders on some high-profile votes.

Perriello and Nye’s votes diverged most recently — and most notably — on the health care bill the House narrowly passed on Saturday. Perriello voted for the bill, a rare Democratic freshman from a McCain-voting district who backed it, while Nye was among the 39 Democrats — most of them from politically competitive districts — who opposed it.

On the health care bill, Perriello said in a statement that he was “proud to support this profound shift away from the status quo towards progress and better, cheaper health care for more Americans.” He said the bill would reduce the deficit, included protections for rural health care and banned federal funding for abortion.

But Nye said the bill wouldn’t do enough to curb skyrocketing health care costs for individuals and small businesses. He also said it would jeopardize funding for a hospital in his district.

Though it would be a stretch to call Perriello’s voting record liberal, his vote for the health care overhaul wasn’t the first time he sided with his party on a controversial big-ticket issue — and most of his politically vulnerable colleagues did not.

In June, Perriello sided with his party’s consensus position in voting for an energy bill that aims to curb greenhouse gases through a cap-and-trade system. Nye was among the 44 House Democrats who opposed the measure.

“Nye is really trying to ensure that his voting record is more consistent with what he considers to be the views of the district than of the national party, and I think he’s setting the framework for an election where’s he going to run as kind of an independent person, not someone beholden to party,” said Robert Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst who runs the Web site Virginia Tomorrow.

Holsworth said Perriello, by contrast, is “really setting up an election strategy based on his constant communication with his constituents.”

“He comes home regularly. He holds town halls, public forums by the dozens. He is really trying to be extraordinarily visible in the district,” Holsworth said.

In an interview over the summer after he voted for the cap-and-trade bill, Perriello said that “when I’ve cast a vote that I think is going to be unpopular, I don’t hide behind it — I go out and I talk about it and make my case and let the chips fall where they may,”

After he voted for the health care bill, the National Republican Congressional Committee pounced on Perriello, issuing a statement shortly after the vote that his “political career was pronounced dead” because of “political malpractice.” The NRCC has described a vote for the health care bill as a “career-ending vote” for Perriello and other politically vulnerable Democrats.

By being among the Democratic “no” voters, Nye shielded himself from the tough criticism that GOP leaders leveled at Perriello. Still, businessman Ben Loyola (R), one of Nye’s two major challengers, criticized the Congressman’s vote against an anti-abortion amendment to the health care bill that passed with the backing of Perriello and 63 other Democrats.

If Perriello’s votes have antagonized Republicans, they’ve also endeared him to the progressive wing of his party. One key to Perriello’s election in 2008 was the strong voter turnout in the liberal precincts around the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In a midterm election that will feature lower turnout than the 2008 presidential election, he’ll need to energize Democratic-leaning younger voters in order to win another term.

There’s a populist streak in Perriello’s district, which helps explain why he’s voiced concerns from constituents over the hundreds of billions of dollars that the government has spent to stabilize the financial markets. Perriello voted in January against releasing the second half of the $700 billion provided under a 2008 law to shore up the financial industry.

While Perriello’s district has distinct conservative and liberal-leaning areas, Nye’s district is more homogenous. Nye’s voting record is not unlike that of former Rep. Owen Pickett, the last Democrat to represent the district, from 1987 to 2001. Like Nye, Pickett focused on military and veterans affairs and amassed a voting record more liberal on social policy and conservative on economic policy.

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