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‘Hurt U.S. Congress’ a sign of political times

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 21, 2010

The campaign signs plastered across Virginia's 5th Congressional District have become a minor cult phenomenon: "Hurt U.S. Congress," they say.

The red, white and blue posters advertise the candidacy of Republican Robert Hurt, a state senator looking to win south-central Virginia's House seat. But to a broader group of fans, the signs imply a promise of things to come in the "tea party"-fueled "Year of the Angry Voter" - a seething backlash against the political body Mark Twain described as composed of "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls."

"I think the idea of hurting them by taking away their power is the perfect idea. If you want to do something that really hurts," said Jerry Douglas, who was so taken by the signs that he posted a photo of one to the Internet. "To me, that sign says that. It says, this is what they care about. Power and ability to control our actions. They have hurt us over the last two years, and now is our chance to hurt them."

Even the French have taken notice. In an article titled "La route du Tea Party," French newspaper Le Monde this week said the sign perfectly captures what's different about this year's elections. The writer said it was a "un usage brillant de son patronym" - roughly, a brilliant use of his surname.

Reports on the Internet suggest that Mr. Hurt is trouncing his opponent, incumbent Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat, in the battle to dot the 5th District with their signs. Hurt campaign officials say they've heard of the signs being posted well beyond the district's boundaries.

"It does reflect a tremendous enthusiasm for this election," Mr. Hurt said. "A lot of the folks we talk to don't know that there's a candidate involved in the sign; they just think it's a good idea."

The sign has spawned discussions, both online and in person. One blogger edited his own version of the sign to read: "Hurt U.S. Congress Please!" On another discussion board, a commenter said that it "would be fitting" for Mr. Hurt to take a seat once held by former Rep. L.F. Payne - whose name sounds like "pain," as the commenter helpfully pointed out.

TJ's Backyard, a satire blog in Charlottesville, Va., posted a spoof story about the signs, saying the Homeland Security Department was planning to investigate thousands of residents "for placing threatening signs in their yards."

Former Clinton political adviser Dick Morris, attending a rally sponsored by Americans for Prosperity in Danville this summer, also riffed on the signs, the Danville Register & Bee reported.

"I saw the best sign outside," Mr. Morris said as he took the stage. "It said, 'Hurt U.S. Congress.' "

Given Congress' disastrously low approval ratings - only one-fifth of voters say they like the way lawmakers are going about their business - it's not surprising the signs resonate.

Still, not everyone thinks it works. The sign was submitted as a "campaign sign fail" at FailBlog.org, and another blogger wrote that it was "a terrible slogan to emblazon your signs with." He proposed that the folks who came up with the slogan be punished with "a sharp kick to the shins."

Aside from the signs, Mr. Hurt's name has spawned all sorts of wordplay attacks. This week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's independent expenditure arm began running a commercial attacking his voting record: "Big corporations and special interests get special treatment. Working families just - get Hurt."

Le Monde speculated that Mr. Hurt intended an anti-Congress message, while others felt it was an accident.

Mr. Hurt said it's the same formulation he used when he ran for Virginia's legislature, when his signs read "Hurt Virginia Delegate" and later "Hurt Virginia Senate." In fact, he said, his campaign has recycled some of those signs, just pasting on stickers with the current office he's seeking.

Ben Donahower, who runs the blog CampaignTrailYardSigns.com, said signs don't win voters' support, but rather serve as an introduction between candidates and potential voters.

He said the best way to do that is to have a memorable sign.

"Going down the street, the red, white and blue signs are a dime a dozen - you're going to get all your candidates confused with each other," he said. "But I've seen blue signs with hunting-neon orange names. Signs like that are going to grab the attention."

It certainly grabbed the attention of Mr. Douglas, who took a photo of the sign and posted it on his Flickr account. He doesn't live in the 5th District, but said the poster struck a chord.

"I just thought it was hilarious. The guy purposely does his sign to say he's unhappy with Congress in a way that makes people want to take action. I just thought it was a brilliantly created sign," he said.

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