The Virginia gubernatorial primary has turned into a sprint to the left — but it’s a race for both Democratic candidates, who each have very prominent conservative baggage they’re hoping voters will overlook.
Both men are chasing after an increasingly liberal Democratic base that’s no longer willing to accept shortcomings on key progressive goals just for the sake of electability in a general election, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
He said Virginia is turning more liberal, and activists in the state are still suffering regret from being told by party leaders to suck up their objections and back Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate over progressive hero Sen. Bernard Sanders.
“And maybe in the era of Trump, that’s all fine given that the president himself once identified as a Democrat, donated to the Clintons and touted his pro-choice views before he switched,” Mr. Rozell said. “In his case it appears not to matter to his supporters. Maybe there is a lesson in that for the Democrats running in Virginia now.”
The first time they shared a debate stage, Mr. Northam pressed Mr. Perriello on why he took campaign contributions donations from the NRA after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. He also touted his “A” rating from the NRA in commercials during his congressional campaign.
“I have taken no NRA money in this race,” Mr. Perriello assured the audience, insisting he has been fighting the pro-gun group for years. “I called them a ‘nutjob extremist organization’ and compared them years ago to the John Birch Society. So I don’t imagine those checks are in the mail.”
In the second debate, Mr. Perriello told voters of Mr. Northam’s votes for Mr. Bush in 2000 and 2004, suggesting the lieutenant governor owned all of the Bush-era policies progressives came to loathe.
“I don’t think people are concerned who I voted for 17 years ago, and what is more, when I was asked the question, I told the truth. That’s important for voters across the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Mr. Northam explained.
Until little more than a decade ago, Virginia was reliably Republican at the federal level, with two GOP senators and one of the country’s longest streaks of voting Republican in the presidential election. The GOP also controlled both chambers of the state legislature, though the governorship changed hands regularly.
Now, however, Democrats are on a winning streak, with their candidate having won the state in three presidential elections, and both U.S. senators also Democrats. All three statewide offices are also held by Democrats.
The candidates themselves have evolved along with the state.
Mr. Northam, who in his last campaign in 2013 called himself “very conservative fiscally,” criticized illegal immigrants and said “I don’t consider myself as a liberal,” is now fighting for liberal causes.
Mr. Perriello also has abandoned his support for charter schools, moved from a supporter to a skeptic of offshore drilling and has steered clear of the belief he aired during his 2008 bid for Congress in the self-deportation of illegal immigrants.
“The Northam campaign would like to reduce this primary to a campaign of box-checking on litmus test issues that both candidates agree on,” said Perriello spokesman Ian Sams. “It’s a disservice to voters, especially when Tom is the only lifelong Democrat in the race.
“In this primary, Tom has set the tone on policy and politics — thrusting issues like raising the minimum wage, reforming our criminal justice system and making community college free to the forefront, while being the first candidate to stand up boldly to President Trump and his politics of hate and division — and Lt. Gov. Northam has followed suit,” Mr. Sams said.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Northam, meanwhile, has accused Mr. Perriello of being a finger-in-the-wind politician and focused on how he voted for the measure in Congress — known as the Stupak Amendment — that pro-choice advocates warned would have curbed access to abortion.
“You simply do not get an A from the NRA standing up for progressive values, and that’s just one example of where Tom Perriello’s record stands in direct conflict to the progressive image he’s trying to cast now,” said Ofirah Yheskel, a Northam spokesperson. “His glaringly anti-choice Stupak vote would have made abortion inaccessible for many Virginia women, and he waited seven years to offer any apology.”
Whatever their starting point, both men have ended up on very liberal platforms. They vowed to fight for universal pre-K education, a $15 minimum wage, free community college and drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.
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