Northam, Gillespie face challenges from anti-establishment rivals
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
RICHMOND (CFP) — Any hopes Democratic and Republican leaders in Virginia had of avoiding contentious primaries in the governor’s race this year have been dashed, with both parties facing the same establishment-versus-insurgent battles that characterized the 2016 presidential contest.
With two months to go before the filing deadline for the June primary, the Democratic race has already drawn two major contenders, while the Republican race has four. All are vying to replace Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is barred by state law from seeking re-election.
On the Democratic side, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam appeared to be cruising to his party’s nomination unmolested until January, when former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello jumped into the race and began casting himself as anti-establishment, in contrast to the well-connected Northam.
On the Republican side, Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who ran a surprisingly strong race for U.S. Senate in 2014, is being challenged by Donald Trump’s former Virginia campaign chairman, a veteran state senator who also worked for Trump, and a Tea Party-aligned distillery owner who has hired the campaign manager who helped take down Eric Cantor in 2014.
A poll from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, released February 2, shows both primary races are fluid, with Gillespie and Northam leading but most voters undecided.
The governor’s battle takes place amid changing political currents in the Old Dominion. Once reliably Republican, Democrats have carried the state in the last three presidential elections and hold both U.S. Senate seats. Three of the last four governors have been Democrats.
Virginia also doesn’t have primary runoffs, which means that on the Republican side, the winner is likely to have garnered significantly less than 50 percent of the vote.
Gillespie, 55, from Fairfax County, is a former top lieutenant to President George W. Bush who has run both the national and state GOP. In 2014, he came within 18,000 votes of unseating Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner, in what was considered one of the biggest surprises of that election cycle.
Standing in Gillespie’s road to the nomination are Corey Stewart, 48, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, who ran Trump’s campaign in Virginia until being fired a month before the 2016 election; State Senator Frank Wagner, 61, from Virginia Beach, a former U.S. Navy officer who has served in the the state legislature for 25 years; and Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner and former Air Force intelligence officer from Afton.
Stewart, who instigated a crackdown on undocumented immigrants as county chairman, has boasted that “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.” However, he was removed from the Trump campaign last October after organizing a protest outside of Republican National Committee headquarters demanding that the GOP hierarchy not abandon Trump in the wake of the release of an audiotape in which Trump made sexually suggestive comments.
A key question in the GOP primary will be the extent to which Trump might assist Stewart — and how much good that would actually do in a state Trump lost.
Stewart will also have competition for the pro-Trump banner from Wagner, who was co-chair of Trump’s campaign in southeast Virginia. He has remained a Trump defender, endorsing the president’s controversial ban on refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries and criticizing Gillespie for not following suit.
In his campaign, Wagner is also touting his legislative experience and the fact that he is the only Republican candidate who is a native Virginian.
Riggleman, the least well-known among the Republican candidates, has hired the campaign manager used by U.S. Rep. Dave Brat in his upset win over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary 2014. Backed by Tea Party activists and talk radio hosts, Brat tossed the powerful Cantor from Congress, in what is now seen as a prelude to the political earthquake that brought Trump to power two years later.
The Wason Center poll found that Gillespie was the choice of 33 percent of Republican or Republican-learning voters, with Wagner at 9 percent, Stewart at 7 percent and Riggleman at 1 percent. However, 50 percent remain undecided.
On the Democratic side, Northam, 57, a doctor and former U.S. Army major from Norfolk, served in the state senate before winning the lieutenant governorship in 2013. He has the backing of most of the commonwealth’s Democratic leadership, including McAuliffe, Warner and U.S. Senator Tim Kaine.
Perriello, 42, from Charlottesville, served a single term in Congress before being swamped in the Tea Party wave of 2010. His tenure was noteworthy for his vote in favor of Obamacare, which didn’t go down well in the more conservative parts of his central Virginia district.
After leaving Congress, Perriello worked at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and was appointed by President Obama as a State Department envoy to Africa.
While Perriello’s voting record in Congress was moderate for a Democrat, he has been staking out ground on the progressive left in the governor’s race, saying he wants to make Virginia “a firewall against hate, corruption and an assault on the Virginia values of decency and progress.” He has also changed his position on using federal funds to pay for abortions, which he once voted against but now supports.
Northam’s most prominent backer, McAufliffe, is a close confidant of the Clintons, and Northam endorsed Clinton over Sanders in the commonwealth’s presidential primary. That could provide an opening for Perriello, who is also close to Obama and members of the former president’s political brain trust.
The Wason Center poll shoed Northam at 26 percent and Perriello at 15 percent among Democratic and Democratic leaning voters, with 59 percent undecided.
Virginia is one of four Southern states that hold gubernatorial elections in off years but is the only one voting in 2017. Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi will have elections in 2019.