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Virginia's lieutenant governor wins Democratic primary, beating back progressive outsider

Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Terry McAuliffe Hosts Election Night Gathering Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has won Virginia’s Democratic primary for governor Tuesday night, holding off an insurgent campaign run by former Rep. Tom Perriello, according to two reports.

At around 8 pm, Northam was leading by about 13 points. Decision Desk HQ has declared him the winner, as did Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

For now, the Republican primary is too close to call. Former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie has a surprisingly narrow lead on local county board supervisor Corey Stewart, who has run a campaign heavy on Confederate nostalgia. It would be a major shock if Stewart can defeat Gillespie.

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, and the support of its most powerful interest groups.

Perriello did find some success in the race positioning himself to Northam’s left and running as the candidate of the anti-Trump resistance movement, said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. After starting way down in the polls, Perriello climbed to within striking distance in the campaign’s home stretch.

But it ultimately wasn’t enough. Polling suggested Perriello’s late lead came from overwhelming support of young people, who are notoriously unreliable voters. They may not have materialized in strong enough numbers on Election Day to put Perriello over the top.

The two “establishments” that vied in Virginia’s Democratic primary

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

But in several critical respects, that binary broke 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 he received the blessing of national Democrats who certainly have clout, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), as well as 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.

At a debate I attended last month, both candidates clearly sought to represent the progressive base of the party. But Northam retained a lot of good will with the party’s rank and file.

“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.”

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