It’s 2016 all over again in the Virginia gubernatorial primary, as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are backing populist and super-charged campaigner Tom Perriello while the state’s two senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are with Ralph Northam, the pediatric neurosurgeon and current Lt. Governor who lacks the charisma and populist appeal of Perriello.
Like Hillary and Bernie, Virginia’s competing Democrats—voters will decide between them in less than a month—are farther apart stylistically than on the issues. But just as the Clinton-Sanders contest exposed the fault line between the populist wing and the centrist or corporatist wing of the Democratic Party, those contours are playing out between Party favorite Northam and Perriello, a former one-term congressman who achieved near mythic stature when he became the only House member President Obama campaigned for in 2010. Perriello lost his seat, and Democrats lost the House.
“There is also a personal side to this,” says Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University. “I have never met anyone who’s met Ralph Northam who doesn’t say, ‘I really like him, he’s such a nice guy,” but half of those people also say, ‘I wish he were a stronger candidate, a better candidate’.”
Picking up on those murmurs of discontent and seeing an opening, Perriello stepped into the race on January 11, disrupting what looked like a coronation and pitting party regulars against the latecomer. “It was a sneak attack from his left as his (Northam’s) supporters saw it,” says Matt Bennett with Third Way, a centrist Democratic group.
With a clear field, Northam could have focused on the November election against likely Republican candidate, former RNC chair Ed Gillespie, who will be formidable.
The race is a preview of what’s to come next year, as Democrats hash out their differences, substantively and stylistically, about whose party it is—whether Clinton and Clintonism are still relevant, whether there’s such a thing as an Obama Democrat, or an Obama coalition without Barack Obama on the ticket.
But so far, this first contest since Trump bested Clinton is all about Trump. Northam calls the president a “narcissistic maniac” in a television ad, and a Perriello ad with the candidate standing in front of an ambulance getting crushed by a compactor went viral—a metaphor, he said, for what Republicans are doing to health care.
Perriello won praise from cable-news pundits for delivering his lines in one take as the crusher came down on the ambulance, evidence of his ability to break through in a news cycle and gain media attention. Even so, Northam is thought to have a structural edge in the upcoming primary as the college students that favor Perriello were already packing up their cars and driving home last week when early voting got underway.
In Virginia, the Clinton brand is still dominant with Governor Terry McAuliffe, longtime Clinton confidante, the standard bearer in the centrist blue, business-oriented state. In a low-turnout primary, these loyal Democrats will show up and be counted.
Professor Kidd says the Perriello challenge is “the best thing that could have happened to (Northam) to get him up to his game. He’s become the kind of candidate Democrats were afraid he couldn’t become,” more dynamic on the campaign trail and “all over social media.”
It’s good for candidates to be “tuned up” in primaries, says Bennett, and with all eyes on Virginia, “There will be so much money floating around in the first year of Trump, money is not going to be a problem. Whoever wins will say this is a referendum on Trump.”
Of course, the tune-up didn’t quite play out to plan last year after Clinton edged out Sanders for the presidential nomination.
What we’re learning in Virginia is the futility of purity. Perriello is running on his vote for Obamacare but he also voted for the so-called Stupak amendment to the Affordable Care Act, which was pushed by anti-choice Democrats. He later called it the worst vote of his career. He also had the NRA’s endorsement for his failed reelection bid in 2010.
Northam voted for George W. Bush twice for president and in 2009 toyed with changing parties, though friends say it was just a ploy to gain leverage while he was in the state Senate. “I guess it’s nice to be wanted, but I’m a Democrat, and that’s where I’m staying,” he said when the flirtation became public. Northam, who once received a passing C+ by the NRA, as since backed Governor McAuliffe’s gun safety measures.
Perriello calls it a “lazy framework” to see his primary challenge through the Sanders prism, and says he would love his campaign to be worthy of both Sanders and Clinton. He has the endorsement of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, who he worked closely with at the think tank Podesta founded, Center for American Progress.
A low-turnout June primary in a single state won’t tell us everything we need to know about the looming showdown between the left and the far left, but we can be sure that whatever happens in Virginia won’t stay in Virginia.
Editor’s Note: This article previously said that “Northam was once highly rated by the NRA.” In fact, his highest rating was a C+; that sentence has been corrected.