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Northam wins easily among Democrats; Gillespie barely edges out Trump-aligned candidate
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
FAIRFAX, Virginia (CFP) — Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam easily won the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor, brushing aside an anti-establishment challenge from former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.
But on the Republican side, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie could only squeak out a narrow win over Corey Stewart, Donald Trump’s one-time Virginia campaign director, in a race that turned out to be much closer than pre-election polls had forecast.
The results of the June 13 primary now set up what is likely to be an expensive and hard-fought race in the fall for the South’s only open governorship.
Among Democrats, North won 55 percent, to 45 percent for Perriello. On the Republican side, Gillespie was at 44 percent, just ahead of Stewart, chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, at 43 percent. State Senator Frank Wagner from Virginia Beach brought up the rear at 14 percent.
Unofficial results from the Virginia Department of Elections put Gillespie’s margin over Stewart at just 4,200 votes out of nearly 366,000 votes cast. The margin would have to be within 1 percent of the total votes cast — 3,660 — in order to trigger a recount under state law.
Because Virginia does not have primary runoffs, Gillespie only had to win a plurality to advance to the general election.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist from Norfolk who has spent a decade in state politics, had the backing of most of Virginia’s Democratic political establishment and appeared to be cruising to an easy nomination until Perriello jumped into the race in January.
Perriello’s campaign was endorsed by 2016 presidential candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with a slew of former officials from Barack Obama’s administration, in which Perriello served after losing his House seat in 2010.
While Obama did not offer an endorsement, Perriello frequently reminded voters of his connection to the former president. But in the end, Perriello’s insurgent passion could not overcome Northam’s organizational and fundraising advantages.
The Republican race also featured an outsider-versus-insider narrative, with Stewart wrapping himself in the mantle of Trump and vowing to “take back Virginia from the establishment” — a not-so-veiled shot at Gillespie, who served as a White House aide under President George W. Bush before leading the RNC.
One curious feature of the campaign was the decision by Stewart — an native of Minnesota — to publicly decry efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces, which have sparked controversy in Charlottesville and other cities in the South.
The governor’s race in the Old Dominion is one of only two being held this year; the other is in New Jersey. Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe is barred from seeking re-election.
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 presidential elections.
Three of the commonwealth’s last four governors have been Democrats, and it is is among just three of the 14 Southern states with a Democratic chief executive, the others being West Virginia and Louisiana.
Establishment-versus-insurgent contests featured on both GOP and Democratic ballots
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.