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Tom Perriello and the rise of a national progressive establishment

President Obama Attends Rally For Rep. Tom Perriello
Former Rep. Tom Perriello’s run for Virginia governor has been treated as that of an “outside insurgent.” Here he is with little-known Democratic official Bara — oh, wait.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

RICHMOND, Virginia — The leaders of Virginia’s Democratic Party may be punished by their own voters on Tuesday for failing to move left quickly enough.

As Virginia Democrats head to the polls to choose their potential successor to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the national progressive establishment is pitting its candidate — former Rep. Tom Perriello — against the state party establishment favorite, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Though the two candidates’ policy positions may not be that far apart, they represent two very different paths to power.

Months before his opponent even entered the race, Northam sewed up everything that usually decides intra-left state primaries — the endorsements of all of Virginia’s major Democratic officials, backing from the state’s biggest donors, the support of its most powerful interest groups.

But Perriello has much more of a national profile. He received endorsements from big names like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). He worked at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and successfully tried positioned himself as the candidate of the anti-Trump resistance movement.

“The Democratic establishment in Virginia was not prepared to turn around and fully embrace this populist energy on the left that exploded after Trump’s election,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, in an interview. “A Perriello win could send a strong message to Democratic establishments across the country: ‘You need to figure out how to deal with this massive new progressive energy before it goes right around you.’”

It looks like it may just work. The latest polling gives Perriello an 8-point advantage in the race.

The two “establishments” vying in Virginia’s Democratic primary

Almost every profile of the Perriello-Northam race has cast Perriello as the progressive, populist outsider insurgent and Northam as the moderate, centrist creature of the establishment.

But in several critical respects, this binary breaks down on closer inspection. Perriello has run as a “Bernie Democrat” determined to get big money out of politics; in reality, his campaign is being backed by Wall Street’s biggest liberal donors.

Perriello has been said to be running against “the establishment,” and, when it comes to Virginia’s Democratic establishment, that’s true. But Perriello received the blessing of national Democrats who certainly have clout, including John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chair.

The two candidates’ voting records also don’t make much of a proxy battle between the party’s left and center-left factions. Both men support a $15-an-hour minimum wage; both have made opposing Trump and defending undocumented immigrants central themes of their campaigns; both have robust plans to expand the state’s community colleges and state infrastructure. “Policy-wise, there really isn’t that much difference,” Kidd said. (The major difference between the two candidates is over the construction of a proposed pipeline through the state; Perriello opposes it, and Northam has drawn ire from environmental groups by refusing to condemn it.)

In his term in the 111th Congress, Perriello had the 10th most conservative voting record of any House Democrat. He backed the Stupak Amendment, which would have barred insurers on Obamacare’s exchanges from covering abortion. (Perriello has since apologized for the vote.) His record is strongly pro-gun, and he once boasted of his “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

“If you were to construct the perfect progressive candidates for Virginia right now, I don’t think you would have constructed Tom Perriello,” Kidd said.

It’s tempting to look at Perriello’s mixed voting record and conclude that it’s wrong to view this race as a referendum on the party’s internal divide. The key here is to view the race not as turning on the left versus centrist wings of the party, though that is part of the story, but as representing a split between Virginia’s Democratic Party and the national Democrats and Democratic organizations that have embraced Perriello.

“We often try looking at the candidates and say[ing], ‘They weren’t always like this movement, and so they can’t genuinely embody it,’” Kidd said. “But what’s happening right now is Perriello has become a voice for this progressive movement and progressive energy. Perriello is an example of the desperate desire among progressive voters for a voice.”

Nationalizing the race

It was a strategy Perriello had little choice but to adopt. Deprived of the traditional means of building local support — he entered the race years after Northam began preparing — Perriello has instead tried bringing national forces to his state-level campaign.

“Perriello has nationalized his base in a local race. And if that works and he wins, it’s unprecedented,” Kidd said. “He’s leaning into progressive energy unleashed by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, which by definition is being motivated by national politics more than state issues. And that’s a big change.”

To an unusual extent, he’s relied on stories in the national media, anger over national issues, and money from outside the state to try to overpower a unified, entrenched local Democratic establishment. There have been a seemingly endless parade of national media profiles of Perriello — in FiveThirtyEight, Slate, the Daily Beast, the New York Times, the New Republic. (Being close to Washington’s political journalists helps.) In addition to Sanders’s endorsement, Perriello has highlighted casting a vote for Obamacare in 2010 despite the political headwinds in a very conservative district — a vote whose bravery President Obama personally praised.

“We’re living in an era where people consume information differently than they did even five years ago. Voters don’t distinguish between a story in Politico or the Nation and the Richmond Times-Dispatch,” a member of Perriello’s campaign team said. “We’ve understood that from the beginning and embraced it; we’re as likely to hit Virginians through national media than local media.”

Ian Sams, Perriello’s communications director, noted that his boss entered the race hoping for it to swell to include voters fired up by Donald Trump. Turnout that looked like a normal Democratic primary would play into Northam’s hands; after all, those Democrats were the ones who voted Northam into office as lieutenant governor in the first place.

“If the electorate looks like it does in 2009, it will be harder for us to win,” Sams said in an interview. “A traditional Democratic primary electorate would certainly favor Northam.”

Sams downplayed the extent to which this strategy amounted to an artificial imposition of “nationalizing” the local race. “This idea that we shouldn’t be talking about Trump because we need solely to talk about roads and bridges is ridiculous; the threat coming from DC is very real,” he said. “I don’t think that’s ‘manufacturing a nationalization’ of the race; it’s just the facts of the matter of how folks in Virginia are feeling about their government.”

Perriello’s campaign shows that Democrats are vulnerable on the left

The scene outside the Highland Springs union hall where Perriello and Northam were set to hold their second debate last month looked a lot like the one outside the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

On one side of the sidewalk stood about 15 students wearing navy blue Perriello pins. One held a placard that read, “Give Elizabeth Warren an ally.” Several of the college students in attendance said they first flocked to Perriello’s campaign because of Sanders’s endorsement. “We saw a true ally in Tom Perriello,” said Ian Hinez, 25, a local carpenter.

On the other side of the street, a group of mostly middle-aged volunteers waved Northam banners. Some spoke of years of committing to building the Democratic Party, and saw that commitment reflected in Northam’s career. They complained bitterly that Perriello had spent so much time recently outside the state before coming back to run for its highest office. (Polling suggests young voters are breaking for Perriello by about 30 points.)

“Perriello doesn’t care about Virginia; he’s just looking to go back to DC. We’ll still be here when he’s gone,” said Bonnie Reid, 70, a Northam volunteer. “I’ve lived here my whole life — I don’t understand why people would want to listen to outside influences.”

But inside the debate hall, it quickly became clear that “outside influences” were very much on voters’ minds. For the first 30 minutes, Perriello and Northam debated in what one political analyst has termed “shades of blue” — about the need to oppose the Republican Party’s health care bill, about the dangers of ICE immigration enforcement. It was hard to find daylight between the two.

When the moderators asked about the candidates’ higher education policies, Perriello touted his plan for free universal community college. But then Northam made a mistake — and let his business-friendly inclination show.

"Virginia is a fiscally responsible state," he said, before citing the fact that Republicans control the state’s House of Delegates. "To raise taxes ... and some of [Perriello’s] other programs go up to close to $1 billion. That's not realistic in Richmond."

Perhaps a few years ago, a centrist Democrat could caution against an exorbitant price tag of a proposed entitlement program and the reality of working with a Republican legislature. But by now, Virginia is a solidly blue state and the liberal base is at a fever-pitch. Perriello sensed an opening — and seized it.

"I think this probably goes to the heart of understanding why Dr. Northam voted for George W. Bush twice in 2000 and 2004," Perriello said, turning to his opponent to twist the dagger. "The trickle-down economics that he supported in the past does not create growth. Investment in the middle class and working class is what creates growth."

Northam sputtered a response before being cut off by the moderators. Rather than respond to the next question, Northam returned to Perriello’s attack — not by defending his community college proposal as more pragmatic and feasible, but by criticizing Perriello for once saying he was proud to have voted with Republicans “more than 60 percent of the time.” “So people who live in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones,” Northam said.

On substance, Perriello’s attack was somewhat overblown — Northam also has a community college plan, just one that’s $37 million instead of $1 billion. But Perriello had effectively boxed in his opponent to his right. Northam had nowhere to go.