RICHMOND, Va. – Two Virginia Democrats vying to be the face of the resistance to President Donald Trump are squaring off Tuesday in a gubernatorial primary that’s come down to a choice between heads and hearts.
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, who served from 2008 to 2010, is running as a liberal crusader supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders, promising to stand up to both Trump and the entrenched business interests that dominate state politics. His pitch to voters is emotional, saying Trump’s victory signaled a new moment in American politics and a more progressive pushback is needed.
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam also vowed to fight Trump but said he will work with state Republicans to move a progressive – and realistic – agenda forward. He’s courted reliable Democratic voters, saying he is the more pragmatic choice who can win in the general election.
On the Republican side, frontrunner Ed Gillespie, a moderate Washington insider, is trying to fend off under-funded but spirited campaigns from avid Trump supporter Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner.
Virginia is one of only two states electing governors this year, and the contest in the swing state that went for Hillary Clinton in November has received national attention. New Jersey had its gubernatorial primary last week, and establishment candidates in both parties won easily.
Kevin Felty, a Norfolk Republican, said he voted for Gillespie because of his fundraising prowess in what’s likely to be a bloody general campaign. The former Republican National Committee Chairman “knows all of the major players personally, like the Karl Roves of the world,” Felty said. “And that opens up the channels to get the funds if this tightens up into a big showdown.”
Felty said a GOP victory in Virginia would wrestle back the “narrative being touted in the mainstream media that the Democrats are gaining traction” under Trump.
The 48-year-old surgical assistant at a local hospital, who also sells life insurance, voted for Trump and remains steadfast in his support. The most important issues for Felty include lowering taxes, banning abortion and strengthening gun rights. He was initially drawn to Stewart, but winning in November is paramount.
“I see this as the midterm of the midterms,” Felty said. “I think it has bigger consequences than people imagine.”
The Democratic primary in Virginia is expected to be close, as Perriello has gained ground on Northam with the help of prominent national Democrats. Perriello has cast himself as an unapologetic liberal and front-line warrior in the resistance to Trump and has been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and heavily bankrolled by Democratic super donors George Soros and Donald Sussman.
“If Tom wins, the political pundits will talk about progressives on the rise in 2017 and 2018 – and the resistance being strong,” actor and activist Mark Ruffalo said in an email fundraiser Sunday.
Perriello’s big test is whether to use that national support will attract more voters in a primary, which typically has lower turnout compared with a general election. He has taken a hardline stance against two proposed natural gas pipelines, a move that’s separated him from Northam and been cheered by some environmentalists and land owners.
Northam, a well-liked pediatric neurologist, had a huge head start on Perriello on the trail and in money raised. He used those advantages to shore up support from many of the state Democratic Party’s core constituencies, including teachers’ groups and African-American political and religious leaders. He has highlighted his strong support for abortion rights and gun control, two issues where Perriello has baggage from his past votes in Congress.
Perriello has apologized for an anti-abortion amendment he voted for in Congress, and has distanced himself from his past praise of the National Rifle Association.
A victory for Northam would be an affirmation of the power of Democratic establishment that’s backed him, including Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who cannot seek a consecutive term in office.
Northam has been critical of some of Perriello’s promises, like raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for social programs, saying they aren’t realistic in a state where Republicans control the legislature. But like Perriello, Northam has been unsparing in criticism of Trump, calling him a “narcissistic maniac.”
On the Republican side, Stewart has tried to make his support of Trump a top issue in the primary while Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, has largely tried to keep Trump at arm’s length.
Gillespie is backed by most of the state party establishment and has focused on pocketbook issues, including proposing a modest cut to the state’s income tax rate. Stewart has tried to overcome his campaign’s financial disadvantage by continually courting controversy, notably with a full-throated defense of Virginia’s Confederate history and monuments.
Wagner, meanwhile, has touted his experience as a veteran lawmaker who can fix the state’s congested highways in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and boost infrastructure spending in poorer parts of the state.
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