Virginia lawmaker Marcia Price has her lefty political idols. She broke with every other Democrat in the state legislature last year to endorse Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.
But when it comes to her state’s June gubernatorial primary, Price wants her liberal heroes to butt out.
“They have it wrong this time,” she said, weeks after Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the progressive champion from Massachusetts, took the unusual step of backing a candidate in Virginia’s Democratic primary.
Their decision to jump into an intraparty contest in a state where neither has roots has changed the dynamic of the race, Price said: “That’s when we lose sight of what’s actually happening in Virginia, and national politics and national conversation starts hijacking our campaign and our election.”
With two weeks to go before the primary, Virginia has become the center of a family dispute between national progressive Democrats and state activists over the identity and future of the Democratic Party.
Price, a state delegate from Newport News, is chairing the campaign of Ralph Northam, the current lieutenant governor who also served in the state legislature and is a favorite of the state Democratic establishment.
She has watched in dismay as Sanders, Warren and a host of well-financed national figures and organizations on the left have put their star power and political muscle behind the insurgent candidacy of Tom Perriello, a former congressman who jumped into the race in January and is appealing to newly engaged voters energized in opposition to President Trump.
More than half of Perriello’s initial $2.2 million campaign haul came from outside Virginia, buoyed by a handful of massive contributions from wealthy liberal financiers including George Soros.
Northam allies contend Perriello, who spent his career on the national and international stage, has been absent from state politics and lacks the history of helping local candidates that the lieutenant governor has.
Perriello says that kind of thinking only brings him more support.
“When they try to suggest the only definition of being a progressive is to have shown up at your [local party] committee meeting, which is very important, they alienate all the very people we are trying to bring into the party,” said Perriello, describing the insular world of Virginia Democratic politics as a “fairly elite and fairly closed circle.”
The race is shaping up to be a choice between pragmatism and passion — and echoes the divide within the party nationally.
The liberal wing argues that the party must inspire voters by aiming high and fighting hard. The mainstream wing says the best way to attract independents and Trump voters is to avoid extremes and focus on attainable goals.
In this year’s gubernatorial primary, that tension can be heard in the way that Northam and Perriello talk about “the Virginia way,” a nebulous phrase that generally means elected leaders should put aside parochial interests in favor of what’s best for the commonwealth.
Perriello contends that genteel political tradition is extinct and has not produced results since then-Gov. Mark R. Warner’s 2004 budget deal. “It’s just not how politics work,” Perriello said.
But Northam says compromise is the only way to get things done. “I look at the Virginia way as being able to sit down at the table with people from both sides of the aisle,” Northam said in his Eastern Shore drawl. “I’m proud of the Virginia way. We’re able to sit down and agree to disagree but, at the end of the day, do what’s in the best interests of Virginia.”
The Virginia governor’s race, always held the year after a presidential election, is generally viewed by national observers as an early signal of how well the party in power is positioned for the midterm elections ahead.
This year’s Democratic primary has taken on unusual significance — as a possible portent of the party’s path through the political wilderness. Democrats not only are shut out of power in Washington, but their ranks have also been decimated on the state and local level.
“It’s certainly going to be a signal for future primaries, in the sense you have an established order of succession for running for governor in Virginia and this is a radical break with it,” said Michael Podhorzer, the political director with the AFL-CIO, which is staying out of the Virginia primary. “A lot of the people who are supporting Perriello see him as the more progressive candidate and are trying to make a point.”
If Perriello wins, he will be the first candidate backed by the political action organization associated with Sanders to win a Democratic primary for a statewide or federal office.
But the Virginia primary is far from a perfect ideological test — the two contenders differ more in style than substance.
Perriello is pushing a message of all-out resistance to Trump and a populist economic agenda that includes attacking corporate monopolies and offering universal prekindergarten, free community college and paid family leave.
Northam, a pediatrician, is also critical of Trump but presents himself as focused on Virginia issues and as a pragmatist who can find compromise with Republicans.
Northam has the backing of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a close Clinton ally who cannot serve consecutive terms under the state’s constitution, and nearly every Democratic state and federal officeholder. That kind of a deep, statewide network can be pivotal when it comes to turning out voters.
Perriello has won endorsements from top aides to Clinton and President Barack Obama, and he has been able to tap into the political organizations allied with Warren and Sanders. Perriello’s first meeting with Sanders was arranged by Perriello campaign manager Julia Barnes, who also ran Sanders’s successful New Hampshire campaign during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
The senator had identified the Virginia governor’s race as part of his mission to reorient the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction. “Bernie and I had talked about this race quite a few times,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s top political adviser. “It obviously was a race that was on everybody’s radar.”
Defenders of Northam pointed out that Sanders lost to Clinton by 30 points in the Virginia presidential primary, suggesting his endorsement may not be a great asset.
But a Washington Post-Schar School poll released this month found that Perriello’s support from Sanders and Warren carried as much weight as Northam’s nearly universal support from Virginia Democrats. Supporters of Sanders in the 2016 primary preferred Perriello by an 18-point margin, while Clinton’s primary supporters were more evenly split.
Northam seems miffed that Sanders and Warren inserted themselves in the Virginia contest without knowing anything about him.
“I do think it’s a little bit shortsighted that they never really reached out to see what I stood for and have been fighting for and also why I have so much grass-roots support in Virginia,” Northam said. “It’s okay to come in and have these idealistic thoughts, but at the same time, we have to talk the reality of what’s going on in Virginia, what are our challenges and how we are going to meet those challenges.”
Longtime Democratic activists backing Northam fear the national progressives are misjudging the political environment in Virginia.
“Terry McAuliffe is probably as liberal as you are going to get in Virginia,” said Peter R. Henriques, 79, a retired history professor who lives in Prince William County.
But Virginians who identify with the party’s progressive wing say that kind of play-it-safe mind-set keeps voters home on Election Day.
“So many people in independent progressive movements share so many common values with Democrats but have felt alienated by a party we feel caters to donors,” said Mike Higgins, a Sanders supporter.
In many ways, the Democratic divisions in Virginia echo what happened to the Republican Party about a decade ago. As the tea party and fiscally conservative Club for Growth emerged, their supporters thought the GOP was taking them for granted. It was not until they began defeating establishment candidates in party primaries that they became a force the party had to reckon with. One big trophy was the 2014 defeat of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia, after tea party activists rallied behind his little-known opponent, Dave Brat.
“It’s sending a message that if you stray from the ideology, you are going to be defeated,” said Stephen Moore, who founded the Club for Growth.
Defenders of Northam say the lieutenant governor is far from a business-minded centrist hostile to progressive ideals.
“Perriello hasn’t said anything different than what Ralph has said,” said state Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “He just yells it louder and he’s younger. That’s it.”
They both support a $15 minimum wage and some form of tuition-free community college, and they oppose offshore drilling.
They differ on the degree to which they want to push their priorities: Perriello opposes two planned natural-gas pipelines, while Northam has repeatedly said that the projects should meet environmental requirements but that the decisions to approve these projects are up to regulators. Perriello has called for a tax increase on the wealthy to fund social programs, while Northam has urged caution against big spending. Perriello broke with prior Democratic governors to call for a repeal of the state’s “right to work” law that bars union membership as a condition of employment, which Northam described as a fight Democrats cannot win.
“The biggest problem Northam has is Perriello is driving the agenda. It’s pushed Northam so far to the left that he is a shell of his former self,” said John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “If we can’t defeat whichever one of them is the nominee, it will mean that Virginia has become a blue state. . . . It’s more running for governor of Vermont than Virginia.”
Virginia activists supporting Northam say progressives trying to make a point with this race do not understand the stakes.
Ed Gillespie, the front-runner in the Republican primary and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is considered a formidable candidate.
In 2014, he came within a hair of defeating Warner, who won reelection to a second U.S. Senate term by less than one percentage point. A former lobbyist and onetime White House counselor, Gillespie can raise substantial money.
If Gillespie wins, he will probably work with a GOP-controlled legislature eager to send him bills to restrict voting and abortion.
Nicole Grim, a statewide organizer for the abortion rights group NARAL Virginia, penned an open letter pleading for national figures to stay out of the race. Her group has endorsed Northam and is actively campaigning against Perriello, citing past waffling on abortion rights while he was in Congress.
“I find it really troubling the conversation is being steered away from what’s really happening in Virginia and what’s happening on the ground . . . and toward a broader conversation about the future of the Democratic Party and resisting Trump,” Grim said. “All of that is obviously important, but this isn’t a national race. This is a state-level race.”