Political News

Democrats in Virginia are making an important choice -- but it's not the one you think

Posted June 13

When former congressman Tom Perriello made his surprise entrance into the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary in January, the stage looked set for an intra-party proxy war -- the establishment, in the form of incumbent Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, put to the test by Perriello and the party's growing progressive insurgency.

But while the campaign has been fiercely fought, and the polls are tight, the dividing lines between the candidates have proven fuzzier than expected. The Clinton-Sanders redux race many hoped for never materialized. Instead, the animating questions have been both broader, with President Donald Trump's long shadow looming, and narrower, as the candidates jostled over issues unique to the Commonwealth.

That could be a problem for Periello, whose profile is less that of state politician than megaphone for the Trump-era angst of the national party. And that could be the importance of this race for Democrats at the state level. Are they going to make Trump the focus of every contest, or is their path back to power through local issues?

At the outset of the campaign, Perriello drew headlines for his full-throated assault on Trump, an apparent effort to nationalize the race and coalesce the growing resistance to the incoming administration's controversial agenda. Northam initially centered his focus on statewide questions. But as primary day has neared, the competing ideas about what issues should drive the race dovetailed. Northam, a doctor, has upped his attacks on Trump, calling the President a "'narcissistic maniac" in an ad last month.

Despite their varying approaches, months on the trail have revealed two candidates as more alike than not.

"Both of these candidates fit into the ideological tradition of (Democrats Terry) McAuliffe, (Tim) Kaine and (Mark) Warner," said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. "This primary has been more of a contest of style, approach and focus than substantive policy differences."

Perriello joined the race as resistance to the Trump agenda began to boom, and promised on the stump to make Virginia a bulwark against it. His bid was boosted soon thereafter by the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders and his political organization, "Our Revolution," along with a laundry list of former aides to President Barack Obama.

Among the Obama veterans to line up behind Perriello were 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe and former White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri, who more recently served as a top aide on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post to offer his blessing.

Obama never joined Perriello on the campaign trail, as he did in 2010 when the congressman was fighting an ill-fated battle to keep his seat in the House. Still, Perriello touted his good relations with the popular former president, using video from the old re-election rally in a series of ads. One of the spots featured Obama, Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

At first expected to cruise to the nomination without a serious challenge, Northam countered with a broader slate of state-based support. The governor, Terry McAuliffe, is backing his deputy. Virginia's Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, along with attorney general Mark Herring have endorsed Northam. Both state House and Senate caucuses pledged their support just ahead of Perriello's announcement.

As the campaign progressed, both candidates ran into roadblocks in the form of past votes that threatened to undermine their pitches to the party base. Perriello, who backed Obamacare, then defended his decision -- and the law -- when many of his Democratic colleagues backed off, was confronted on the trail for his support of the "Stupak Amendment," a contentious proposed Obamacare tweak that would have denied federal money to insurance plans offering abortion coverage. (Perriello has since apologized, repeatedly, and while he currently has a 100% rating from abortion rights group NARAL, Northam has their endorsement.)

Northam has encountered his own difficulties. He has been attacked for taking money from the increasingly controversial Dominion Energy, a regulated monopoly that serves as the state's largest energy supplier. Perriello announced early on that he would not accept donations from the influential company.

Northam has also been forced to cope with an admission that he voted -- in 2000 and 2004 -- for candidate and then President George W. Bush. Perriello drilled him on the decision throughout the campaign.

"I'm the only person in this race that's been a Democrat my whole life," Perriello said at a forum in May. "I voted for Democratic presidential candidates. I devoted my life for three years to trying to defeat George Bush's agenda while Ralph Northam was voting for him twice."

At a town hall in Richmond a month earlier, Perriello suggested those votes would hamstring Northam in a general election debate with the likely GOP nominee, Ed Gillespie, who served as the Republican National Committee chair during Bush's re-election campaign before eventually working in his White House for 18 months.

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