The Democratic candidates to be Virginia’s next governor spent the final days of their primary in very different comfort zones, highlighting two starkly different interpretations of the energy currently coursing through their party.
While Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam hit the campaign trail with Gov. Terry McAuliffe and both Democratic senators for scheduled events, flexing the establishment muscle behind his campaign, former Rep. Tom Perriello dashed from stop to stop on a hyperactive, 24-hours-straight campaign tour, intercepting voters at Waffle Houses and gelato shops around Virginia.
Both campaigns are outwardly confident about winning Tuesday’s primary and setting up a November matchup with Republican Ed Gillespie, the front-runner in the GOP primary. But while both campaigns have adopted highly progressive platforms and leaned heavily on criticism of President Donald Trump during the primary, Perriello is also banking on unusually high turnout from irregular Democratic voters, motivated partly by backlash to Trump. Northam is counting on his steady campaign effort — including forceful denunciation of Trump — and validation from nearly all of Virginia’s top Democrats to appeal to the core party activists who usually decide these races.
“The more committed Virginia Democrats are more likely interested in a governor in the mold of Gov. McAuliffe, and some of the newer voters may think it’s more important to have a Trump resistance,” said Jesse Ferguson, a longtime national Democratic operative with extensive experience in Virginia. “The question in this race is, in the era of Donald Trump, do Democratic primary voters think it’s more important to be focused on fighting Washington or on making Richmond work?”
Meanwhile, Gillespie — a former Republican National Committee chairman — has enjoyed a sleepy GOP primary against two less-known Republicans: Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner. While it looked early on like a possible clash between the establishment and activist wings of the Republican Party, with Stewart doing his best to mimic Trump, polls have consistently given Gillespie a massive lead.
The action has been on the Democratic side, where public polling has been tight. Scattered signs from absentee ballot data indicate a potentially fired-up electorate: There have been nearly 29,500 absentee ballot requests for the Democratic primary, about 1,000 more than during the presidential primaries last year. Large spikes have come from college towns where Perriello hopes to do well. In the 11th Congressional District, represented by Rep. Gerry Connolly, 975 of the 1,895 ballots returned came from infrequent primary voters.
"I think Tom has broken through to some new voters, and that could be very good for him," said Connolly, the only member of the state’s congressional delegation who hasn’t endorsed Northam. But he also thought Northam’s omnipresence around the state over the past four years could hand him an edge. "This is, at the end of the day, a Virginia race. And that’s a problem for Tom," said Connolly.
Perriello plans on expanding the electorate twice over, first in the primary and first in the general. He regularly invokes working-class people who he says aren’t deciding whether to back Democrats or the GOP, but are deciding between voting for Democrats or staying home.
Perriello supporters hope to see about 500,000 people turn out for Tuesday’s Democratic primary — a big increase over the 320,000 who showed up for the last competitive gubernatorial primary, in 2009. (Northam’s campaign does not expect the electorate to grow significantly.)
“We hope the primary electorate looks like all of Virginia. We hope it’s large and diverse,” Perriello said Friday morning at a gelato shop in Arlington, as he kicked off 24 straight hours of campaigning that included a 4:30 a.m. Waffle House visit and a stop at a Williamsburg women’s shelter. “Ralph’s doing well with the voters who are going to vote in November no matter what. We’re doing well with the voters who don’t normally show up in gubernatorial elections. I think that shows we give Democrats the best chance to win.”
Northam says he expects turnout to stay about the same, perhaps with a slight increase. His supporters are more blunt.
“We’re not going to see droves of new people coming in,” predicted state Sen. Barbara Favola, a Northam backer who added: “I will concede that these are unique times. But I can’t judge the reliability of all these people who are very angry at Trump.”
Perriello’s campaign has been massively outspent, with Northam using a Virginia-built war chest to blitz the airwaves with nearly $4 million worth of ads, while Perriello has only been able to spend $2 million. But his campaign schedule has been more aggressive than Northam’s, including frequent town halls that over 250,000 people have watched on Facebook Live.
And Perriello has benefited from high-profile progressive endorsements, featuring Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in his ads.
“Tom’s victory will be a signal all across this country,” Sanders says in Perriello’s final TV ad. “We will not be a nation that gives tax breaks to billionaires, that scapegoats minorities and cuts programs for working people and the sick. Tom’s victory will show that America’s moral compass is pointing in a very different direction.”
Northam has focused on winning over regular, consistent Democratic primary voters, people who have cast ballot after ballot for the delegates, state senators and Virginia political giants who are backing him. His final ads feature endorsements from Del. Marcia Price and Rep. Bobby Scott to woo the African-American vote; backing from activist groups like the Virginia Education Association and NARAL to woo liberals; and the support of the Washington Post’s editorial board to win over populous Northern Virginia.
At a rally in front of about 75 campaign volunteers on Saturday morning in Arlington, McAuliffe and Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner heaped praise on Northam. Kaine said Northam’s military background would give him credibility with the roughly one-third of Virginians with ties to the military, and his experience as a doctor would give him clout when speaking out against Republican plans to repeal Obamacare.
"On matters of principle, he does not have a reverse gear," Kaine said.
Republicans think the primary race to the left, and the intense resistance to Trump, gives them an opening in the general election: Gillespie has aired ads boasting of his plans for a tax cut while Northam and Perriello have used more progressive messaging.
The flameout of Stewart’s campaign, which has placed a heavy emphasis on opposition to plans to remove statues of Confederate veterans in Charlottesville, has given Gillespie the freedom to spend more time in swing areas of Northern Virginia and roll out a general election message free of talk about divisive social issues — or Trump.
But the generally positive tone of the Democratic contest has party strategists hopeful the primary will not harm either candidate’s chances of defeating Gillespie. One outside group has attacked Perriello, prompting condemnation from Northam.
“There are some primaries where the primary hurts the party’s prospects in the general, and there are some where it helps,” Ferguson said. “In this case, it helped the candidates introduce themselves and build an organization without tearing each other down. It’s a net benefit for our chances to win the election in November.”