GOP looks to put the Hurt on Rep. Perriello

Former Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) opened up a sweepstakes in his old district when he said last month that he wouldn’t run in 2010, and state Sen. Robert Hurt has emerged from the clutter as the odds-on frontrunner.

Hurt has yet to make his intentions known, but those close to him say he is seriously looking at the race and is leaning toward entering it.

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Freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) has gained plenty of attention – some of it unwanted – during the August recess for the tightrope he is walking in a conservative district on issues like health care reform. Republicans are expected to make the race one of their foremost priorities in 2008, but they were stuck in a holding pattern until the former incumbent made his intentions known.

Now that Goode has done that, Hurt is next in line and appears a good bet to be the GOP nominee if he runs. His state Senate district covers about a quarter of Perriello’s Charlottesville-based district, and Hurt represented even more of the district before he ascended to the state Senate in 2008.

He also doesn’t have a reelection battle on his hands this year, allowing him to gear his energies exclusively toward a congressional bid.

“From a realistic perspective, there are a lot of good people interested, but with Robert’s background in Virginia and his personality, he is clearly the best candidate,” said Ronnie Mayhew, the chairman of the Pittsylvania County Republican Party.

Those close to Hurt say indications are he will enter the race, but that family issues are holding him back.

A Washington operative who has worked in Virginia estimated Hurt is 60 percent leaning toward the race.

“I think if he jumps in there, you’ll see the vast majority of those who talked about it start drying up real quick,” the source said. “He’s obviously a favorite down there, but he also has the pedigree and resume for the district. He can raise money statewide to raise money from PACs and lobbyists in Washington.”

The other name being mentioned frequently is state Del. Rob Bell (R), but he has a difficult reelection race on his hands this year and would be hard-pressed to turn around and immediately run in one of the top congressional races in the country.

The Washington operative said Bell was leaning against running, and Bell himself told The Hill he has “no plans to run for the seat.”

Sources say that could change if Hurt opts not to run and there is an opening early next year, but that it appears unlikely.

“The conventional wisdom is coming around to Hurt,” said a southern Virginia GOP operative. “Bell has political problem running for reelection in a tough district.”

Others being mentioned include state Sens. Frank Ruff and Steve Newman, but both appear to be yielding to Hurt at this point.

So far, a few little-known candidates have entered the race, including biology teacher Feda Kidd Morton, businessman Laurence Verga and Fair Tax advocate Bradley Rees. Others mentioned include Albemarle County Supervisor Ken Boyd and Cordel Faulk, a spokesman for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

For his part, Hurt sounds genuinely undecided about the race, stressing that he has sought guidance on what it’s like to have a young family at home while serving in Congress.

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“The idea of becoming a full-time politician is not all that enticing, but obviously there are very compelling reasons to want to serve in that capacity,” Hurt said, noting many of the Democratic-led initiatives so far in the 111th Congress.

Hurt said he doesn’t have a timeline for his decision but noted that he understands that it’s important to find a candidate sooner than later.

“I understand that there are a lot of possible candidates out there, and I’m committed to making sure we have the best candidate run,” he said.

Perriello’s district was one of the most surprising to go Democratic in 2008. Given a sizable student population and black population that comprises about a quarter of the district, the turnout model was highly unusual in 2008, when those groups turned out in record numbers for President Barack Obama.

Republicans hope the pendulum will swing back their way in 2010, and the race has frequently been listed among the top 10 House races in the country.

It will be important for whomever the GOP nominee is to perform better in the Charlottesville area, which is home to the University of Virginia. Hurt is from the southern portion of the district, but national Republicans think he has a profile that will have universal appeal.