In a state known for its pandering to the middle, Virginia’s Democrats are leaning further to the left than usual. Both Democratic Gubernatorial candidates appear to be staking out territory decidedly to the left of the Trump administration which– in the context of the rest of the world– makes them normal.
The actual policy differences between Tom Perriello and Ralph Northam are slight. They both support a $15 minimum wage and some form of tuition-free community college, and they oppose offshore drilling. They are both relatively sane in terms of women’s issues, and both, significantly, have stumbled on the road to political purity.
Early in his career, Perriello voted for the so-called Stupak amendment to the Affordable Care Act, which would have prohibited the use of federal funds “to pay for any abortion” and was actively pushed by anti-choice Democrats. He later called it the worst vote of his career. Northam has been a consistent defender of women’s rights, but he also voted for George W. Bush—twice– for president. In 2009, Northam toyed with changing parties, though friends say it was just a ploy.
There are a few other places where you can find daylight between the candidates, though and these differences accentuate the ‘type’ of candidacy they are trying to represent. In recent debates, Perriello has made clear his opposition to two planned natural-gas pipelines, Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline while Northam has repeatedly said that the projects should meet environmental requirements but that the decisions to approve these projects are up to federal regulators at FERC.
Additionally, Perriello has called for a tax increase on the wealthy to fund social programs, while Northam has urged caution against big spending. Perriello broke with prior Democratic governors to call for a repeal of the state’s “right to work” law that bars union membership as a condition of employment, which Northam described as a fight Democrats cannot win.
It’s a good indicator of what separates the two candidates—a willingness on the part of Perriello to mix it up, even if there’s only a slim chance. Northam, conversely is more of a diplomat, cautious and unwilling to engage in fights that from their outset appear unwinnable.
Indeed, Perriello’s initial candidacy might have been described as unwinnable, and, until Trump took the Presidency, unthinkable. Perriello said he would have not entertained running, but Trump’s unlikely victory galvanized him into action.
Nationally, Perriello has received endorsements from the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both of whom appeal to the Democrats’ activist base; unlike the party establishment which, by all accounts, were hoping to install Northam into the governor’s chair without much of a general election, much less a primary. But as Perriello and his supporters have often said, “call off the coronation.”
Virginia’s Democratic Party power players, including both senators and the governor, are all squarely behind Northam. The establishment is “furious with Perriello,” Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said. Northam, who thought he had the primary locked up, is now spending campaign cash in a fight against another Democrat. Sabato contends that Perriello “isn’t well-known either, because he only represented the 5th for two years, but the activists who tend to vote in primaries tend to be more liberal, and they are charged up and they are everywhere,” Sabato said.
Northam leads Perriello in name recognition with Democrats overall, 50 percent to 45 percent. But more new voters — those who didn’t vote in the 2009 or 2013 gubernatorial elections, who are likely to be younger and more liberal — know who Perriello is (31 percent) than know who Northam is (28 percent). Those voters, young, energized and some already activists in their own rights are being fought over by both campaigns. And, as so often happens, that fight, itself, has caused stumbles.
In a recent push poll by the Northam campaign, much was made of his fight against the infamous mandatory transvaginal ultrasound bill from 2012 in the Virginia General Assembly. The problem? Some activists from that fight are contending that Northam is over selling his work. “He didn’t lead the fight. We led the fight. We made the phone calls, we organized the marches, we showed up at the General Assembly building and the Board of Health meetings—and protested long and loud enough that our representatives finally began to listen.” Northam probably meant he debated on the right side of the bill in the General Assembly, but it’s hardly the type of leadership the activists I talked with are asking for. They are also less than enchanted with Northam’s position on the pipelines which they describe as a “sell out.” It doesn’t help that Northam still receives generous cash contributions to his campaign from Dominion Power—the huge utility company
behind the ACP– while Perriello, along with 50 other Virginia House Delegates have refused funding from the power company.
In their view, and the view of many Virginia voters, the primary taking place this coming Tuesday is a referendum on the failed strategies of the national Democratic party. Both nationally and locally, they argue, there seems to be a fixation on identity politics and neoliberal policies and a singular lack of urgency regarding the environmental crisis and economic issues confronting the younger generation. Both of these later issues Perriello champions loudly, while Northam prefers a more conciliating manner. The national political establishment will be watching this coming Tuesday to see which approach gets the best traction.
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