Will Virginia Democrats Make the Gubernatorial Race a Referendum on Trump?

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One of the first big off-year statewide races will pit Ralph Northam against Tom Perriello in Virginia. Photo: Commonwealth of Virginia; US Congress

One of the two off-year statewide elections being held in 2017 is in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And thanks to an unusual one-term limit on Virginia governors, Democrat Terry McAuliffe will not be able to run for reelection.

Until last month, it was assumed the one credible Democrat running for McAuliffe’s job would be his lieutenant governor and designated successor Ralph Northam. But then former one-term (2009–2011) congressman and Obama administration foreign-policy appointee Tom Perriello jumped into the race.

Perriello, from Charlottesville, was an unlikely congressman, who in 2008 won what was considered a solid GOP House district with a textbook “populist” campaign combining economic progressivism with a degree of cultural conservatism. In Congress, his voting record earned him a 2010 endorsement from the NRA, and he also voted for an amendment banning coverage of abortion services by insurers participating in Obamacare. Owing to later adjustments by Perriello to his issue positions on guns and abortion to align himself with progressives, his surprise candidacy for governor was greeted with barrage of questions about his ideological reliability.

Now, however, the worm may be turning, after a New York Times article on the Virginia race noted the little-known fact that Ralph Northam has admitted he voted for George W. Bush for president twice. His defense is that he was “an apolitical doctor at the time,” and he regrets his votes. But the disclosure reminded observers of reports that Northam came close to switching parties and awarding control of the Virginia Senate to the GOP in 2009. At a minimum, it seems Northam will be precluded from throwing stones at Perriello for ideological heresies.

The other issue the Northam-Perriello contest is raising is whether Virginia Democrats should openly try to make the gubernatorial race a referendum on national politics generally, and Donald Trump’s administration specifically. So far Northam is reflecting the traditional self-regard of Virginians by making his campaign totally about state issues, while Perriello is openly barnstorming against Trump and linking his campaign to anti-Trump protests in Virginia and around the country.

There’s a case to be made for both approaches. On the one hand, the actual job of the Virginia governor has relatively little to do with what’s going on in Washington. On the other hand, the party controlling the White House has lost nine of the last ten gubernatorial contests in Virginia (McAuliffe actually broke a 40-year streak in 2013), so it’s hard to believe national politics do not have some effect on the Commonwealth — an effect that, if anything, has been increased by the demographic dominance of northern Virginia, which is especially pronounced among Democrats.

Northam locked up a lot of support from Virginia Democrats before Perriello entered the race, but between now and the June 13 primary, it will be interesting to see how much of the contest is about the past as opposed to the future, and about developments in Richmond as opposed to Washington.

Will Virginia Gubernatorial Race Be a Referendum on Trump?