RICHMOND — Days after Ralph Northam defeated Tom Perriello for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the race for Virginia governor, the victor and the vanquished came together Saturday in their first joint appearance and declared a united party heading into the November election.
The men embraced at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, the state Democratic Party’s biggest fundraiser of the year, and Perriello pledged to work hard to see Northam defeat the Republican nominee, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.
Former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., who delivered the keynote address, said Virginia finds itself at the “epicenter of the political universe in 2017.”
“In November, the commonwealth will have the first opportunity to send a message to the present occupant of the White House and the extreme right-wingers who surround him,” Holder said.
As one of only two gubernatorial contests in the United States this year, Virginia’s election is expected to draw tens of millions in outside spending and will be carefully watched as an early test of the political landscape in the Trump era. The other race, in New Jersey, is seen as less competitive.
Holder is leading an initiative to end gerrymandering that Democrats say has allowed Republicans to lock in control over statehouses and congressional districts. The effort, which former president Barack Obama has embraced as a priority upon leaving office, will focus on Virginia and other states.
In Virginia, Republicans hold 66 of 100 House of Delegates seats and seven of 11 U.S. House seats while Democrats have prevailed in statewide contests in recent years. The next governor will have sway over how state and federal legislative maps are drawn in 2021, shaping politics for the next decade.
Critics say the national Democratic Party neglected state races, leading to the party’s decimation down-ballot, with Republicans now controlling 33 governor’s offices and 32 state legislatures.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, chaired by Holder, is trying to change that. The group plans to support Democrats in gubernatorial and state legislative races, in addition to funding ballot initiatives to create independent redistricting commissions and legal challenges to GOP-drawn legislative maps.
For the Virginia contest, the committee plans to steer money to elect Northam and draw a national spotlight — and national donors and activists — to the race. Holder said prominent Democrats would hit the campaign trail, though he declined to identify them or say whether Obama would stump for Northam.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who cannot seek consecutive terms under the state constitution, is also fundraising for the group and helping shape its strategy.
“Our goal is not to gerrymander for Democrats,” Holder said in an interview after his speech. “Our focus is really on making sure that throughout this country we have fair districts drawn and a contest between parties on their philosophies, as opposed to their line-drawing capabilities.”
Holder urged Democrats at Saturday’s dinner to avoid intraparty conflict, a marked contrast from progressive leader Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who last week at a gathering of activists in Chicago called the Democratic Party’s strategy an “absolute failure.”
“Now is not a time for this party to be beholden to ideological litmus tests,” Holder said. “Our party is made up of disparate parts, but it is held together by common goals.”
The primary fight between former congressman Perriello and Northam, who is Virginia’s lieutenant governor, echoed the ideological divide within the Democratic Party nationally: Perriello pushed for greater focus on economic populism to win back rural and other disaffected voters, while Northam urged a pragmatic approach and reaching compromise with Republicans.
But on Saturday, they seemed to embrace Holder’s advice and presented a united front.
“We have a champion who is going to fight tirelessly and endlessly for economic justice and racial justice here in the state of Virginia in the form of Ralph Northam,” said Perriello, drawing a standing ovation as he vowed to “stop at nothing” to help elect the Democratic ticket.
Northam returned the praise in his remarks.
“The Democratic Party of Virginia is stronger tonight because of Tom Perriello,” Northam said in a fiery speech condemning Republicans in Washington and Gillespie.
They drew a contrast to disarray on the Republican side of the race. Gillespie barely beat Corey A. Stewart, a Prince William county supervisor who fashioned himself after President Trump in espousing hard-line conservative views on immigration and calling for a need to protect Confederate monuments. Stewart has withheld support for Gillespie, saying after the returns came in that he didn’t recognize the word “unity.”
Stewart has subsequently hinted that he’s interested in challenging Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who’s up for reelection in 2018, and that he would be meeting with Gillespie to discuss conditions for an endorsement. He said he would offer support only if Gillespie moved to the right to back aspects of Stewart’s platform.
Gillespie campaigned over the weekend with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), not Stewart.
Holder said that defeating Gillespie would be a particularly fitting start to his group’s electoral efforts. As chair of the Republican State Leadership Committee, Gillespie was among the GOP strategists behind the successful takeover of statehouses in 2010 to influence redistricting.
“He is the founder of the Freedom Caucus,” said Holder, referring to the group of deeply conservative House Republicans in safely GOP districts. “We want to hang around his neck exactly what he did in 2010 that resulted in the decade we are now having to endure.”
In an earlier interview with The Washington Post, Gillespie said he was proud of his work and a “smart plan” to flip state legislatures to influence redistricting.
In addition to the gubernatorial contest in November, Attorney General Mark Herring is running for a second term against Republican lawyer John Adams; Democrat Justin Fairfax faces state Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) for lieutenant governor; and 100 House of Delegates seats are on the ballot.