RICHMOND — Ralph Northam is not a fiery campaigner for the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia. Most voters still don’t know who he is, despite the fact that he’s been lieutenant governor for the past three years.
But that may not matter, at least for the June 13 primary. Northam has spent years building an army of loyalists across the state who can amplify his voice and do the single most important thing: Get voters to show up at the polls.
So now his challenger for the nomination, former congressman Tom Perriello, finds himself facing not just the lieutenant governor in the contest for votes, but also the former mayor of Martinsville. And a county supervisor in Fairfax. And a former state Senate candidate in Winchester.
Dozens of local leaders whom Northam has helped say they’ll work to get their supporters to return the favor on primary day.
That means Perriello, who entered the race late, needs to whip up a phenomenal amount of grass-roots support to compete. Primaries usually have low turnouts, especially in non-presidential-election years. But Perriello says he thinks voters will be motivated by the controversial administration of President Trump.
“There’s an unbelievable amount of energy right now across the commonwealth that’s up for grabs,” Perriello said. “We’ve seen some things this year we’ve never seen before in terms of the intensity and breadth of the progressive response.”
This is one way the Virginia race stands as a defining moment for the Democratic Party in the Trump era. In Northam, the party has an establishment candidate who has played by the rules and cultivated the usual base — paying special attention to women and African American voters. Perriello is pushing into populist territory, aiming for anyone who feels angry and disaffected, saying Trump’s success with the working class means the Democratic Party needs to broaden its appeal. Who wins will say something about the way forward for Democrats.
Both campaigns are quick to swat away any comparison to last year’s Democratic presidential primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But strains of that conflict — between the party choice and the populist insurgent — are unmistakable in the Virginia matchup.
“There’s a lot of loyalty toward our party and what I’ve done,” Northam said. “I think they realize what I’ve meant for the party and how hard I’ve worked for our values. We see it as a significant advantage.”
He has made some 180 appearances over the past couple of years on behalf of other state and local candidates, from senators to county supervisors, and often in districts where Democrats were unlikely to win. One of those he supported was Kim Adkins, a former mayor of the Southside city of Martinsville who ran for state Senate in 2015.
At that time, the state Democratic Party was concentrating its efforts on trying to pick up a seat in Northern Virginia — a strategy that failed — and Adkins said she got little attention in her Republican-leaning area.
“I didn’t get party support — except for Ralph Northam,” Adkins said. The lieutenant governor showed up for the grand opening of her campaign headquarters, did a fundraiser in Danville and staged a conference call for her, she said.
“When you’re in the mix and you don’t have the support of the party and you think you’re a pretty strong candidate in a tough race — he gave me reassurance I was doing the right thing,” she said. Adkins lost that race, but she’ll be encouraging people to vote for Northam in the primary.
Perriello is a strong candidate and was a good congressman, she said. “But he wasn’t concerned with building the Democratic base.”
In vote-rich Fairfax County, supervisor John W. Foust had met Northam during the lieutenant governor’s race in 2012. When Foust decided in 2013 to run for Congress, Northam “was the first elected official to call me and offer his assistance,” Foust said. Foust lost that race but ran again for supervisor the next year. Northam was back at his side and “did my campaign kickoff event for reelection,” he said.
While other state politicians responded when called on, Northam has always been the first to volunteer, Foust said. “I would like to think it’s because we have a great relationship, but I’ve seen him do it with so many other candidates also. . . . He’s put a lot of effort in that,” he said.
It will be repaid this June, Foust said. “I’m going to do anything I possibly can to help him,” he said, adding that he plans to host a fundraiser, “utilize my contact list to encourage people to vote and speak on his behalf when asked.”
All of the Democratic delegates and state senators in Virginia have endorsed Northam, as have Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both former governors of Virginia. Perriello has scored a few big endorsements, too — Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and former Obama policy director Neera Tanden both came out for him recently.
But Northam has a deep bench of local power brokers who have roots in various communities.
Karen Schultz, for instance, runs the Center for Public Service and Scholarship at Shenandoah University in Winchester and is a local force in encouraging people to run for office or participate in government affairs. She ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2007 and said she has hosted Northam at her home several times. Schultz said she’ll be urging people to get out and vote in the primary.
“He has a great track record of supporting and encouraging and staying in touch with Democrats,” she said.
That may not sound sexy, but it can be a powerful asset for a candidate — especially during a primary, when only the true faithful are usually paying attention.
“The reality of what Lieutenant Governor Northam has done over the last few years to build toward this run is very difficult for any [rival] candidate to overcome,” said a national Democratic operative who has extensive experience in Virginia. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid seeming to favor a particular candidate.
“The law of gravity applies,” the operative said, meaning that primary voters tend to be few in number, older and already involved in party affairs. And Virginians, traditionally, are favorable toward candidates who are already in office. “That’s a hard thing to overcome,” he said.
But that’s tradition, and Perriello and his supporters say conditions this year break that model apart.
Voters energized by opposition to President Trump “certainly aren’t into a system where a small group of leaders get to determine who the candidate should be from behind the scenes,” Perriello said.
Thanks to social media and the flourishing of new groups such as Indivisible, he said, “the old gatekeepers don’t have the same control they used to.”
Recent polls show voters evenly split on Perriello and Northam, but the vast majority still have no opinion, so the race is wide open.
Perriello has been on the road since the first of the year, circling the state in a Jeep Grand Cherokee and hitting some 41 counties or cities so far. He has packed town hall meetings and seen huge turnout for online events; when snow canceled a rally this week in Williamsburg, a last-minute Facebook Live event drew 7,000 viewers during the hour it was taking place.
“We’re galvanized by everything that’s going on now,” said Felicity Blundon, 64, a volunteer for the homeless and researcher from Richmond who attended a Perriello town hall in that city last week. Calling Republicans’ efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act “heartless” and “cruel,” Blundon said she thinks Perriello is more passionate and does a better job than the folksy Northam of conveying forceful resistance.
As she waited for Perriello to arrive, well more than 100 people tried to pack into an under-size room at the Diversity Richmond community center. “We’ve got problems,” one harried volunteer complained to campaign staffers. “There are more people coming in, and we’ve got no more space.”
Once Perriello took the microphone, he quickly tapped the restlessness of the crowd. “We have to be absolutely fearless and tireless about standing up against President Trump’s [politics] of hate and division. As powerful as he is, we are more powerful,” he said to cheers and applause.
Of course, Northam, too, is staging events around the state and using social media to criticize Trump. And several of the people cheering for Perriello at the Richmond event said they were still making up their minds about how to vote.
A similar dynamic played out in the 2013 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, when former U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra challenged Northam for the nomination. Chopra was young, and, like Perriello, an acolyte of former president Barack Obama. He, too, had enthusiastic audiences at town hall meetings — but ultimately he fell short, losing to Northam by eight percentage points.
Chopra, who co-founded the Arlington consulting firm Hunch Analytics, said he thinks that the current race is still up for grabs and that all of Northam’s endorsements will mean nothing if those officials expressing support for him don’t get out and knock on doors.
“Turnout and understanding the audience is the biggest challenge,” he said. It could be that harnessing anti-Trump fervor is going to matter more to both candidates than traditional efforts to woo a few faithful Democratic voters, he said.
And although he has donated money to Northam in the past, Chopra said, he is also “dear friends” with Perriello and will wait to endorse a candidate. “I’ll be focusing on boosting overall [voter] turnout with all my heart, my soul and my passion,” he said. “I’m still waiting to see if I want to be much more active in the primary itself. . . . For now I’m encouraging my supporters to follow their heart.”