For the last 15 years or so, the path to becoming governor of Virginia followed a relatively clear path: Emphasize your ability to get things done without freaking out either the liberal northern part of the state or the conservative areas that dominate much of the rest.
Also, when possible, run in a year after the other party wins the White House.
So for Ralph Northam, this year’s Democratic primary should have been a speed bump on his way to the governor’s mansion. The 57-year-old pediatric neurosurgeon-turned-politician has spent the last decade in Richmond, first as a state senator, then as Governor Terry McAuliffe’s No. 2.
Then Tom Perriello entered the race. Five months later, Northam’s cakewalk is a dead heat.
The easy takeaway is that this Democratic primary has become a rematch of the party’s 2016 presidential primary, with a populist upstart horning in on the establishment’s heir apparent. In this telling, Perriello, a progressive, Yale-trained lawyer from Charlottesville who was elected to Congress in 2008, voted for Obamacare, and got bounced after a single term for it, is is Bernie Sanders. Northam, who locked down the state party’s entire leadership early, is Hillary Clinton. Perriello has had to look outside Virginia for air support—one of his first big endorsements was none other than Sanders, followed by Elizabeth Warren. (Perhaps unsurprisingly for a 42-year-old guy from Charlottesville, he’s received $20,000 from Dave Matthews. He’s also received $500,000 from George Soros.)
But Clinton-Sanders II not quite the right way to frame this race, says Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. The contest has tightened, he says, not because of a lingering squabble in the Democratic base but because Perriello has made it about who can be the stronger antagonist to President Trump. “Perriello came roaring out of the gate,” Skelley says. “Northam had said some things about Trump, but Perriello’s campaign has set the direction of the race in many respects.”
In other words, while Northam is running as the next man up in Virginia’s system that limits governors to a single term, Perriello cites Trump explicitly in making his case. “The only question was of all the things I can do to stop what Trump represents and protect what Virginia represents as my home state,” he told Washingtonian a few weeks after declaring his candidacy.
Perriello’s campaign produced what might be the primary race’s most memorable image: after the House passed its Obamacare replacement, Perriello released a one-take ad in which he again defended his 2010 vote, only this time with a backdrop of an ambulance being squeezed in a car crusher.
The message has worked: Perriello is now in a statistical tie with likely Democratic primary voters as Virginians’ antipathy toward the President has grown. A May 18Washington Post poll found that only 36 percent of the commonwealth’s residents approved of Trump. So instead of waiting for the general election to use the White House to rail against the GOP nominee—expected to be former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie—Northam has had no choice but to follow Perriello into a knock-down, not terribly Virginian slugfest over who can be the strongest leader of the #Resistance.