WASHINGTON ― Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam squares off against progressive favorite Tom Perriello on Tuesday in the state’s highly competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary, where the left flank hopes national momentum will carry it to a win.
Thanks to Virginia’s status as one of two states with gubernatorial races this year (the other is New Jersey), the primary has attracted historic levels of attention and resources from Democrats eager to land a blow against President Donald Trump.
Northam, a 57-year-old pediatric neurologist, had locked up the support of virtually every major elected official in Virginia and was poised to cruise to the nomination until Perriello, a 42-year-old former diplomat and one-term congressman, announced his run in January.
Thanks to the endorsements of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the country’s leading progressive politicians, and firm stances on several controversial issues, Perriello has excited the state’s younger and more liberal voters, erasing virtually all of Northam’s lead in the polls.
As a result, many progressives view the race as a crucial test of whether a more liberal candidate can prevail in a state where moderate Democrats have long ruled the roost.
“This primary is really about what foot the Democratic Party in Virginia is going to lean on,” said Quentin Kidd, a Virginia politics expert at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. “It’s leaned on the right foot for a decade and a half since Mark Warner evolved this model of a Democrat who can win statewide in Virginia. If Perriello wins it means it will lean slightly to the left foot.”
Kidd uses the word “lean,” because he doesn’t think the shift would be “any more dramatic” than a pivot to the left.
Nowhere is the potential shift more significant, however, than in the state government’s posture toward Dominion Energy, Virginia’s influential power monopoly.
Perriello has refused to accept contributions from Dominion and opposes construction of the Atlantic Coastal pipeline, which the company is planning to construct across the state. Northam has declined to take a comparable stance against the natural gas pipeline, favoring tight regulation instead.
In the end, approval of the pipeline is a matter for federal regulators, but Dominion clearly views Perriello’s vocal opposition as a major threat. The company has mobilized tens of thousands of its employees, retirees and shareholders to campaign in the gubernatorial primaries, using thinly veiled language that makes clear they prefer Northam.
“If Northam wins tomorrow, you won’t hear much about Dominion any more, because Northam wouldn’t make that an issue,” Kidd predicted.
When Perriello got into the race, he immediately began to nationalize the contest, claiming he was inspired to run by Trump’s election ― and pitching himself as a bulwark against the effects of the president’s policies for Virginia.
“What people want to see right now is that willingness to stand up to Trump and limit those really unconscionable and unconstitutional moves and also have a positive vision,” he told HuffPost in March.
Northam initially downplayed the national implications of the race, but soon started incorporating Trump, who he dubbed a “narcissistic maniac,” into his stump speeches.
“Whatever you call him, we’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia,” Northam concludes in one of his television advertisements.
He has also gone toe to toe with Perriello on some of his bolder economic proposals, embracing the $15 minimum wage and putting forward his own free community college plan ― albeit one that, unlike his opponent’s, requires community service.
If Northam wins tomorrow, you won’t hear much about Dominion any more, because Northam wouldn’t make that an issue.
Quentin Kidd, Christopher Newport University
For some progressive activist supporters of Perriello, however, his early involvement in the anti-Trump resistance won them over. Perriello’s presence at Dulles Airport to protest Trump’s first travel ban in January and participation in subsequent rallies against the executive order made an impression on Virginia Democratic National Committee member Yasmine Taeb, who is now a vocal supporter of his.
“He has been very committed to running a grassroots, bottom-to-top campaign,” said Taeb, who lobbies on civil liberties issues for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “He looks to us for guidance, not the other way around.”
Taeb, like many of Perriello’s most enthusiastic supporters, backed Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
For several reasons though, Sanders’ insurgent challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not an apt parallel for the Perriello-Northam matchup.
Perriello spent years ensconced in the Democratic Party firmament, including as head of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. And the bid of Sanders acolyte Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), to chair the Democratic National Committee was actively combatted by former President Barack Obama and his aides. But Perriello has attracted the endorsements of more than 30 Obama White House veterans, including close the former president’s confidante Valerie Jarrett. (Northam appealed to former Attorney General Eric Holder to ask Obama not to intervene in the race himself, according to The New York Times.)
Perriello, a Charlottesville native, became a darling of national Democrats during his time in Congress in 2009-10 for voting enthusiastically for the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act, in spite of his conservative district, which included a large swath of rural Southside Virginia.
Obama campaigned for him in his 2010 reelection bid, which Perriello has publicized heavily in his current campaign ads. That anger over the ACA ultimately cost Perriello his seat only improved his standing in the party.
But Perriello’s time in Congress was also marked by attempts to triangulate on hot-button social issues. He earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association during his 2010 reelection campaign and received a $6,000 donation from the influential group based in Fairfax, Virginia.
More troubling still for some progressives was Perriello’s vote for the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the ACA, which would have denied federal funding from the new law to any health insurance plans that cover abortions.
Perriello has since dubbed the NRA a “nut-job extremist organization” and embraced greater gun safety regulations.
He has also expressed “regret” for his vote for Stupak-Pitts, claiming he was honoring a promise to constituents to ensure the ACA complied with the Hyde Amendment, a law barring federal funding of abortions. Now the former congressman has embraced the complete abortion rights agenda and is proposing enshrining a woman’s right to an abortion in Virginia’s state constitution as a backstop against a Supreme Court ruling that overturns federal protections for the procedure.
It is really disturbing to see this play out in Virginia, where the candidate who is considered more progressive has a murky history on abortion rights and Bernie is saying it is an optional part of being progressive.
But some reproductive rights activists still do not trust Perriello, claiming he has yet to be tested by a vote on the matter since his change of heart. Revelations that in 2004, Periello, a practicing Catholic, co-founded Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a social justice group that has compared abortion to torture and war have only heightened advocates’ suspicions. The Perriello campaign claims he has nonetheless always been pro-abortion rights.
Northam, by contrast, has a record of only ever supporting abortion rights, and played a key role in the fight to kill the trans-vaginal ultrasound bill as a state senator in 2012. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia cited Northam’s record in its statement endorsing him.
“This is about trust. I know exactly who Ralph Northam is, and I know exactly what Northam will do as governor. He will not stick his fingers up in the air to see which way the political wind is blowing,” said Erin Matson, a Virginia-based reproductive rights activist who supports Northam.
For Matson, the primary is a test of the Democratic Party’s commitment to abortion rights at a time when top lawmakers ranging from Sanders to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have loudly proclaimed that Democrats who oppose abortion are welcome in the party.
“It is really disturbing to see this play out in Virginia, where the candidate who is considered more progressive has a murky history on abortion rights and Bernie is saying it is an optional part of being progressive,” Matson said.
In a further twist of the race’s complicated narrative though, Northam has admitted to voting twice for former President George W. Bush, who appointed two anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. In 2011, he also called health care a “privilege.” (He claims he was not following politics closely during the Bush years, and now considers health care a “right.”)
On other issues, like overturning Virginia’s status as a right-to-work state, which Perriello supports, but Northam has demurred on, the contrast between the two candidates is clearer.
One way or another, Perriello’s chances of winning depend on expanding the electorate, since he enjoys the greatest advantages among young people, new voters and Democrats in Southside and Southwestern Virginia who have not voted regularly in primaries, according to Kidd of Christopher Newport University.
Northam’s support is concentrated in more reliable Democratic constituencies, including older Democrats and black voters, particularly in central and Southeast Virginia, Kidd added. The key battleground, he said, is in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia, where Perriello has been campaigning most heavily in the final weeks.
“There was this pent up energy in the electorate for an alternative to Northam that Perriello tapped into. And that pent up energy has the capacity to surprise people, if the expanded electorate turns out,” Kidd concluded. “That’s the key.”