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Virginia Democrats Run to the Left in Key 2017 Race

The progressive-dominated primary campaign is a departure from the playbook used by recent successful Democrats in Virginia.
Image: Ralph Northam, Tara Perkinson
Virginia Democratic governor's candidate Ralph Northam, left.Steve Helber / AP

The liberal showdown in Virginia’s gubernatorial race played out earlier this month in Northern Virginia, where Democrat Ralph Northam met with workers at Ronald Reagan National Airport who were campaigning for a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

“We need to work hard to increase the minimum wage,” he told NBC News after the event, later adding: “I’ve been fighting for progressive values in Virginia for the last 10 years.”

The very next day, his primary opponent Tom Perriello made the same visit – and his campaign told NBC that he had embraced raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour before Northam did.

Say hello to the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia, which increasingly has become a contest to see which candidate is more progressive. And say goodbye to the more centrist Virginia Democratic playbook that current Sen. Mark Warner — and Tim Kaine and Jim Webb, to lesser degrees — used successfully in the state over the last 16 years.

Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, has touted his record fighting the state’s transvaginal ultrasound legislation in 2012, as well as pushing for gun-safety reforms.

Perriello, a former Democratic congressman, talks about achieving criminal-justice reform, combating a “rigged” economy and fighting against the Trump administration’s “white tribalism.”

And it all raises the question: Just how blue is the state that Democrats have won in three-straight presidential elections? Or is it still purple, given the Republicans’ control of the state legislature and their gubernatorial victory there eight years ago?

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says Perriello’s surprise entry in the contest earlier this year — Northam originally expected no serious competition in the June 13 Democratic primary — made it a race to the left.

“No question Perriello is dragging Northam to the left,” Sabato said. “Actually, Northam has moved left during the McAuliffe administration, even before Perriello announced. But now Northam has to stress all of his liberal positions — some of which, on gun control and abortion, may be more to the left than Perriello’s record.”

But Sabato also notes that President Trump’s unpopularity in Virginia — a poll last month had his approval rating at 38 percent in the state — could overshadow this Democratic competition over who is more progressive.

“Trump may generate a larger turnout than usual than usual among Democrats come November. The larger the turnout, the likelier the electorate will resemble last November, and the better the [Democratic] nominee’s chances,” he said.

Northam, a doctor and Army veteran, says he isn’t concerned about a primary dragging the eventual Democratic nominee to the left. “These are things that I’ve fought for my whole life,” he told NBC. “And as a lot of people know, I ran in a very conservative district,” referring to his days as a state senator.

Perriello’s campaign has a similar response, arguing that pursuing priorities like a $15-per-hour minimum wage “is a fight we welcome” given that it’s something even some Trump backers support, says Perriello spokesman Ian Sams.

“Of the two candidates running in the primary, Tom brings bolder arguments than Ralph has brought,” Sams adds. “We welcome an argument who can be the most bold.”

Holes in Their Progressive Records

Yet as Northam and Perriello try to one-up each other in the Democratic primary, their own progressive records contain some noticeable holes, which each candidate is trying to exploit.

For Northam, it’s voting for George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. “Knowing what I know now, that vote was wrong. That administration does not stand for what I believe in,” he said in an interview with NBC News.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think Virginians are worried about who I voted for 17 years ago. They’re worried about what I’ve been fighting for since I was a public servant and where I want to take Virginia.”

For Perriello, it’s the A-rating he earned from the National Rifle Association when he served in Congress, as well as his vote for an anti-abortion amendment in the debate over the 2010 health-care law.

“I want to be very clear that I regret my vote on the Stupak-Pitts Amendment,” he wrote in an online post last month. “This vote caused real pain to constituents and other women. I appreciate that some of these brave women and reproductive justice advocates took time to tell me their stories and educate me about the full implications of that vote.”

GOP: “A Primary Between Left and Left-er”

Republicans in Virginia are giddy to see this Democratic contest turn into a race to the left.

“This is a primary between left and left-er and it's hard to tell which one is which,” says Matt Moran, a spokesman for GOP gubernatorial frontrunner Ed Gillespie. “They oppose offshore drilling, an energy pipeline backed by Gov. [Terry] McAuliffe, and are both in favor of sanctuary cities, driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, a $15 minimum wage, and free community college. And it's only March!”

Adds Republican Party of Virginia Chair John Whitbeck, “It appears that Tom Perriello and Ralph Northam are desperate to be Virginia’s version of Bernie Sanders.”

But Democrats ultimately believe that Virginia’s gubernatorial race will be more about the eventual Republican nominee having to own President Trump than any primary liberal showdown.

“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of focus on Virginia to see which way this country wants to go,” Northam told NBC News.

As well as focus about just how blue – or purple – Virginia really is.