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Primaries for Virginia governor echo 2016 presidential race

Establishment-versus-insurgent contests featured on both GOP and Democratic ballots

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

RICHMOND (CFP) — The calendar may read 2017, and the names on the ballot may not be the same, but voters in Virginia can be forgiven if the commonwealth’s primaries for governor seem vaguely reminiscent of last year’s presidential contest.

On the Republican side, a party stalwart and former aide in the George W. Bush White House is running against Donald Trump’s one-time Virginia campaign director. On the Democratic side, a Bernie Sanders-backed candidate is offering a stiff challenge to a veteran officeholder who was considered to be a shoo-in just six months ago.

As voters prepare to go to the polls June 13, polls show that many voters in both races are undecided, providing a level of uncertainty and suspense in the South’s only governor’s race this year.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

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 the anti-establishment alternative, in contrast to the well-connected Northam.

Northam has the backing of Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is barred by Virginia law from running for re-election, along with both of the commonwealth’s U.S. Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Virginia

Perriello has countered with endorsements from Sanders, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and a slew of former officials from Barack Obama’s administration, in which Perriello served. And while Obama has not offered an endorsement, Perriello has been reminding voters of his connection to the former president every chance he gets.

Polls have shown a close race, although the large numbers of undecided voters means there is no clear leader heading into election day.

Ed Gillespie

On the Republican side, Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and Bush aide who ran a surprisingly strong race for U.S. Senate in 2014, has held a lead in the polls over his two challengers, Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and State Senator Frank Wagner, from Virginia Beach, a former U.S. Navy officer who has served in the the state legislature for 25 years.

Because Virginia does not have primary runoffs, Gillespie only has to win a plurality to advance to the general election.

GOP candidate Corey Stewart

Stewart, who was once Trump’s Virginia state chairman, has wrapped himself in the Trump mantle, positioning himself as the man who can “take back Virginia from the establishment,” a not-so-veiled reference to Gillespie.

Stewart lost his job in the Trump campaign in October 2016 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. But he still continued to support Trump.

During the campaign, Stewart — an native of Minnesota — has also come out against efforts to remove Confederate monuments, which have sparked controversy in Charlottesville and other cities in the South.

The winners of both primaries will advance to the general election, which is one of only two governor’s races being held this year. The other is in New Jersey.

Once reliably Republican, Virginia is the only Southern state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, and it has now gone to the GOP in three successive elections.

Three of the commonwealth’s last four governors have been Democrats — Warner, Kaine and McAuliffe — and Virginia is among just three of 14 Southern states with a Democratic chief executive, the others being West Virginia and Louisiana.

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