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National and State Democrats Split Over Virginia Democratic Primary

The primary fight between Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello pits state Democratic leaders against national figures.
Image: Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello  shake hands after a debate at a Union hall in Richmond
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, left, and former Congressman Tom Perriello, right, shake hands after a debate at a Union hall in Richmond, Virginia on May 9, 2017. The two candidates face off in the June 13 primary.Steve Helber / AP

WASHINGTON — This month’s Democratic gubernatorial primary race in Virginia may appear to be something of a replay of the 2016 Hillary Clinton-vs.-Bernie Sanders fight.

After all, progressive former Rep. Tom Perriello is challenging heir apparent Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in the contest to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. And Sanders himself has endorsed Perriello.

But that’s where the similarities end.

For starters, not only have Sanders and Elizabeth Warren endorsed Perriello — but so has former Clinton campaign Chair John Podesta, as well as former top Obama aides.

"Our team is actually 50 percent Bernie people, 50 percent Hillary people and 100 percent Obama people," Perriello said of his campaign staff back in February in an interview with NBC News.

What’s more, Perriello’s advertising campaign features Barack Obama campaigning for him in 2010 — whereas Sanders’ 2016 run was more of an implicit rebuke of the former Democratic president.

And then there’s the fact that Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who endorsed Clinton and was her vice-presidential running mate, is backing Northam. Ditto longtime Clinton friend Gov. McAuliffe.

Indeed, there’s a much better way to view the June 13 Democratic primary for governor: It’s national Democrats (Sanders, Warren, Podesta, Obama vets) supporting Perriello, while state Democrats (McAuliffe, Kaine, Sen. Mark Warner, Congressman Bobby Scott) are behind Northam.

“I’ve known Ralph for a long time and he’s man who truly cares,” Rep. Scott says in a radio ad for the Northam campaign. “Ralph was an Army doctor and treated wounded soldiers during the first Gulf War.”

“The dividing lines in this race are much more style than substance, with one candidate more DC-oriented in focus and support and other more Richmond-oriented,” says Jesse Ferguson, a former 2016 Clinton campaign aide and veteran of Virginia politics.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten suggests, this state-vs.-national divide pretty much played out in Virginia’s Democratic Senate primary back in 2006, when Jim Webb (running on a more national platform opposing the Iraq war) beat Harris Miller.

But that was for federal office. And the Northam camp believes that a state-focused contest is better suited for a gubernatorial campaign, even as Northam has referred to President Trump as a “narcissistic maniac” in his advertising.

Yet whatever approach comes out on top in two weeks — national or state — observers like Ferguson predict the party will be united after June 13.

“Whoever wins the primary, style-based battle lines are easy to unite, and the party will unite behind the nominee to win the race in November," he says.

And that might be yet another difference with Clinton vs. Sanders.