An uncompromising and belligerent Republican who disparages political correctness.
An underdog Democrat stirring unexpected populist fervor. Establishment candidates on the defensive. The governor’s race in my home state of Virginia currently resembles a Netflix reimagining of the wild campaign for the White House last year.
Take Corey Stewart, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman in Virginia and a contender for the Republican nomination. He has said that Trump’s victory has freed candidates to “simply be yourself … You can be profane, you can be politically incorrect.” Early on in the primary process, his rhetoric has already positioned him in the footsteps of the president — he has conceived the scornful nickname “Establishment Ed” for his GOP primary opponent Ed Gillespie and logged Twitter offensives that may as well have been written by the commander in chief himself. This Trump 2.0 and Confederacy-apologist certainly has no place in Virginia politics and it’s up to the Democratic nominee to protect the statehouse from Trump-era dynamics and to carry on Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s legacy. (The one-and-done term limit in the state constitution prohibits McAuliffe from running for re-election.)
However, the two Democratic candidates are currently approaching the race with substantially different tactics. Because this will be the first serious election in the Trump era, we can expect it to be a bellwether of the shifting political climate. It raises the question of whether Virginia Democrats should openly make the election a referendum on politics across the Potomac River in Washington or focus on state issues.
Among the Democratic candidates, former one-term Congressman Tom Perriello, who upended the expectation that Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s ascent to the nomination was all but a shoo-in, has embraced anti-Trumpism as a major animating factor in his campaign.
“I’m running for Governor of Virginia because our state must be a firewall against hate, corruption and an assault on the Virginia values of decency and progress,” he noted when he declared his candidacy. “That is a wall worth building.”
Certainly, Perriello is a political opportunist capitalizing on the toxic political climate in which Democrats don’t want moderation in their candidates but a spine full of resistance. His earnest message is certainly resonating with Virginian voters, locking him in an unexpected dead tie with Northam, and on the campaign trail, he’s looked about as wholesome and promising as a tall glass of milk next to a warm cookie. However, his spotty liberal record on reproductive rights and gun control gives me pause. He broke with the pro-choice movement in 2009 and backed the Stupak amendment to the Affordable Care Act, which restricted insurance coverage of abortion. He also had an ‘A’ rating from the NRA when he ran for Congress. Many Virginia Democrats — particularly those in ultra-liberal Northern Virginia — are crazy with rage at the current state of politics and Perriello’s campaign might be unexpectedly successful by tapping into that fervor. However, I don’t necessarily believe that channelling Democratic discontent will make Perriello the best governor; I fear that a single-minded focus on anti-Trumpism will occlude pragmatism and meaningful progressive policy progress.
While Northam has spoken out against Trump, he hasn’t framed his entire candidacy around opposition as Perriello has. Rather, he has emphasized his political tenure and contributions in the Commonwealth as a state senator and lieutenant governor. For example, as lieutenant governor, he cast a tie-breaking vote in the state senate to defeat legislation that would have allowed some Virginians to carry concealed firearms without a permit; he cast another tie-breaker to advance legislation forbidding discrimination in state hiring on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. He has also secured endorsements from critical Virginia Democrats including McAuliffe and Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Furthermore, his liberal voting record is more secure than Perriello’s and may appeal to Democrats who aren’t as influenced by Perriello’s populist fervor. “I have never been one, despite being from a very conservative area of Virginia, that puts up my finger to see which way the political winds are blowing,” he said.
However, his candidacy may be damaged by the fact that he voted for President George W. Bush not once but twice and has been courted by the Republican Party.
Despite their differences in strategic calculations, Perriello and Northam agree far more than they disagree, and I haven’t yet fully decided for whom I will cast my vote. Regardless, though, the election will be a test case for other state-level candidates who hope to determine the future of the Democratic Party. Can someone who’s gone against party orthodoxy on key issues be forgiven if they promise a powerful populist message? Can the emerging culture war across the political spectrum be bridged by a more moderate candidate? Virginia is the canary in the coal mine for the new political era.