Virginia: Will the center hold?

By Hastings Wyman –

The campaigns for Virginia’s June 13 gubernatorial primary are in full swing. In each party, there is a centrist candidate – by the party’s standards – and a challenger who gravitates toward the party’s more ideological wing. For the Democrats, the centrist is Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a loyal Democrat who has the support of virtually the entire Democratic establishment in Virginia, including influential Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The leftist challenger is former US Rep. Tom Perriello, who entered the race late – in January – and has the support of national liberal leaders and donors.

At their first debate Saturday night, in vote-rich Fairfax County, Northam and Perriello expressed similar views, but with Northam more modest in his calls for change, and Perriello more adventurous. Perriello is for free community college; Northam two free years, plus two years of community service. Perriello backs more generous policies for working parents, including eight weeks of leave at two-thirds pay to care for a new baby or a sick family member. Northam is for a tax credit to employers for eight weeks of paid leave. Perriello is against oil and natural gas pipelines under consideration, while Northam – like Gov. McAuliffe – supports them.

The difference between the two is also delineated by the people and groups that support them. Northam, 57, has been endorsed by every Democratic member of the General Assembly, including every African-American lawmaker. He has also been endorsed by Gov. McAuliffe and US Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and state Attorney General Mark Herring. NARAL, the abortion rights group, as well as the Virginia Education Association have both endorsed Northam. Neither organization would be an enormous factor in the General Election, but in a primary, they could make a difference.

Perriello has the backing of both US Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), plus a number of former officials in the Obama Administration who worked with Perriello in the State Department and on his diplomatic post in Africa. Perriello, 42, also has a strong following among college students, a group he has courted. In addition, Perriello has the fresher face, which may be an advantage.

On the money front, as of March 31, Northam had $3.3 million available, to Perriello’s $1.7 million. But Perriello did outraise Northam in the months following his January entry into the race, bringing in $2.2 million to Northam’s $1.4 million. According to the Washington Post, 57% of Perriello’s money came from out of state, compared with 11% of Northam’s.

More than half of Perriello’s money came from four donors, three individuals and a non-profit that Perriello helped found. Billionaire George Soros and his son Alexander contributed a total of $375,000 to Perriello.

Notes one Richmond insider, “As an anti-Trump candidate, [Perriello] likes to bemoan big money in politics, but he benefits from big money.”

Northam’s resume, like his endorsements and his campaign contributors, is strongly rooted in Virginia. He graduated from VMI and from the Eastern Virginia Medical School. He was a combat surgeon in the Gulf War and subsequently practiced as pediatric neurologist in Norfolk.

Perriello, on the other hand, graduated from Yale and Yale Law School. After losing his congressional seat in 2010, Perriello worked for the left-leaning Center for American Progress and for President Obama’s state department, including serving as a diplomat in Africa.

While that would appear to give Northam a major advantage, it is not all the clear. In 2010, just under half of Virginia’s population was born outside of the state. Moreover, Bernie Sanders – and Donald Trump for the GOP – showed last year that strong ties to the local electorate and its party apparatus was not a guarantee of success. Thus, running as an outsider probably has some advantages for Perriello, particularly in vote-rich areas like the Washington, DC suburbs in Northern Virginia.

Both Northam and Perriello have some resume glitches that are at odds with their current stances. Northam, for example, voted for George W. Bush twice. He told the New York Times, “At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to politics. Knowing what I know now, I was wrong and would have voted differently.” And Perriello, in his one term in Congress, got an A grade from the National Rife Association (he opposed the ban on assault rifles) and voted for the Stupak Amendment, which would have barred Obamacare insurance from covering abortions.

However, Northam’s supporters don’t have problems with his party loyalty. Says Carter Phillips, an attorney and Democratic activist in Hampton, “Northam has shown himself to be a really good Democrat,” adding that he “can get votes that Perriello cannot get, in the rural areas, on the Eastern Shore, in Southwest Virginia.

Since Trump’s inauguration, Perriello’s populist, anti-Trump message, however, has been strongly endorsed at packed town hall meetings across Virginia, reported the Washington Post.

With two caveats – that early polls are often wrong in primaries and that about half of respondents were undecided – here are two recent polls.

In a poll for the Virginia Education Association (which has endorsed Northam), taken by Public Policy Polling, Northam led Perriello by 39% to 25% among “likely” Democratic Primary voters. Another poll, taken in mid-March by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, showed Northam and Perriello tied.

On the Republican side, “At this point, the Republican Primary seems to be pretty much settled,” says a Richmond insider, a conclusion affirmed by fundraising numbers, local analysis, and opinion polls, with former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie a solid early favorite over

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County board of supervisors, and state Sen. Frank Wagner.

Gillespie raised $1.9 million in the 1st Quarter, leaving him with $3 million in his war chest. Stewart took in $300,000, leaving him with $400,000. And Wagner raised $58,000, and had $178,000 on hand.

Morton Blackwell, Republican National Committeeman from Virginia, who endorsed Gillespie early, says that “Gillespie is showing the right stuff. He’s way ahead. He has two opponents; neither has significant traction.” He noted the recent defections from Stewart by local officeholders, including the sheriff, who opposed Stewart’s ardent defense of Confederate monuments.

Blackwell added, “Gillespie is running on issues that have broad appeal, issues that are going to make a difference in the General Election.”

“Stewart’s neo-Confederate gambit would work in a small primary,” notes the Richmond insider, “or if there was an evenly divided GOP establishment,” neither of which is the case. He adds, “Wagner has good credentials, but little or no luck. He’s not getting a lot of traction.” And of major importance, Gillespie has substantial goodwill for his close-but-not-close-enough showing against US Sen. Mark Warner (D) in 2014; Gillespie lost by a whisper – 0.8%.

The Wason Center poll confirmed Gillespie’s lead. He had 38% of GOP voters to Stewart’s 11% and Wagner’s 10%.

In sum, on the Democratic side, the center, as represented by Lt. Gov. Northam, should but may not hold against the ideological/populist challenge of former US Rep. Perriello. For the GOP, however, the center, as represented by Gillespie, is a major favorite over righter-than-right Stewart. Stay tuned.