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Justin Fairfax says encounters with 2 accusers were consensual, wants FBI investigation

Political support for Virginia lieutenant governor collapses, with impeachment threat on the table

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

RICHMOND (CFP) — Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax’s political problems have gone from bad to worse after a second woman stepped forward Friday to accuse him of sexual assault, with his political support in free fall as his fellow Democrats desert him.

Fairfax is now calling for an FBI investigation into claims of sexual assault made by Meredith Watson, who says he raped her in 2000, and Vanessa Tyson, who says he forced her to perform oral sex on him in 2004.

In a statement issued Saturday, he acknowledged having consensual sexual encounters with both women but urged Virginians not to “rush to judgment” before the claims are investigated.

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax

“I say again without reservation: I did not sexually assault or rape Meredith Watson, Vanessa Tyson or anyone else,” he said in a statement released late Saturday. “Our American values don’t just work when it’s convenient — they must be applied at the most difficult of times.”

But Fairfax is facing momentum growing against him, including a call for his resignation by the Democratic Party of Virgina, which put out a statement on Twitter calling the sexual assault allegations “credible” and saying the lieutenant governor “no longer has our confidence or support.”

Fairfax — the only African American holding statewide office — has even lost the support of the members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who said in a statement that “we can’t see it in the best interest of the Commonwealth of Virginia for the Lieutenant Governor to remain in his role.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope of Arlington said he will introduce articles of impeachment to remove Fairfax if he does not step down by Monday.

“As the father of three young girls, I cannot stand by silently while the lieutenant governor is facing multiple, credible allegations of sexual assault,” Hope told reporters at a news conference Friday night. “My sincere hope is that this will not be necessary and the lieutenant governor will heed the calls of many to resign this weekend.”

The latest allegations are a stunning reversal in the political fortunes of Fairfax, who just a week ago was poised to take over as governor with Governor Ralph Northam under pressure to resign over a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page.

Should Fairfax resign, Northam — or whoever is sitting in the governor’s chair — will pick a replacement, with an election in November to fill the final two years of Fairfax’s term. Impeachment would be a decision for the Republican-controlled legislature.

In a statement released Friday, lawyers for Watson alleged that Fairfax raped her in 2000, when they were both students at Duke University. The statement did not give details of the attack but described it as “premeditated and aggressive.”

Her attorneys also indicated that she has emails and Facebook posts that document that she told other people about the attack right after it happened. She decided to come forward after learning of a claim made earlier in the week by Tyson, a California college professor who said Fairfax sexually assaulted her during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, according to her attorneys.

“Ms. Watson was upset to learn that Mr. Fairfax raped at least one other woman after he attacked her,” the statement said. “(She) is reluctantly coming forward out of a strong sense of civic duty and her belief that those seeking or serving in public office should be of the highest character. She has no interest in becoming a media personality or reliving the trauma that has greatly affected her life.”

Democratic leaders largely stood by Fairfax after Tyson’s allegation. But the dam burst once Watson came forward, imperiling the political future of a man who had been seen as a rising star in Democratic politics.

Among the leaders calling for Fairfax’s departure were former Governor Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Senator Tim Kaine.

“The allegations against Justin Fairfax are serious and credible,” McAuliffe said on Twitter. “It is clear to me that he can no longer effectively serve the people of Virginia.”

“The allegations against him detail atrocious crimes, and he can no longer effectively serve the Commonwealth,” Kaine tweeted. “We cannot ever ignore or tolerate sexual assault.”

Virginia’s other Democratic U.S. senator, Mark Warner, and the dean of its U.S. House delegation, Democrat Bobby Scott, both stopped short of calling for Fairfax’s immediate resignation, although they said he should resign if the charges are substantiated.

Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates also called for Fairfax to resign, including Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and both African Americans in the race, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

“The allegations … are corroborated, painful stories of sexual assault and rape. It’s clear Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax should resign his office,” Harris said on Twitter.

The new allegations against Fairfax cap a week of turmoil in the Old Dominion, with all three top statewide Democratic elected officials enmeshed in controversy, a little over a year after they were swept into office in a Democratic wave

The turmoil began when Big League Politics, a conservative website, published a photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page showing a man wearing blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan regalia.

After first appearing to concede that he was in the photo and apologize, Northam then said he does not be believe he is one of the men in the photo.

But after apologizing for allowing the photo to be published on his page, he compounded his problems by admitting that he darkened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest while serving as an Army doctor.

In his first interview since the scandal broke, with the Washington Post, Northam said he will not resign and would spend the remaining three years of his term working for racial reconciliation in the commonwealth. He also said he “overreacted” in quickly issued his initial apology that he later walked back.

Adding to the meltdown in Richmond was an admission by Attorney General Mark Herring that he wore blackface while impersonating a rapper when he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia.

However, Democratic leaders have so far not bailed on Herring, which prompted the Republican Party of Virginia to accuse them of hypocrisy and giving the attorney general “a hall pass.”

“What is the difference between Governor Northam’s blackface and AG Herring’s?” said Jack Wilson, state GOP chairman, in a statement. “If there is no difference, shouldn’t Democrats call for both to resign?”

Wilson said Democrats were protecting Herring to maintain “their stranglehold” on state government. If Northam, Fairfax and Herring were to all depart,  House Speaker Kirk Cox from Colonial Heights would take over as governor — flipping the office from Democrat to Republican.

However, that would only be possible if Northam left first. If he were still governor when Fairfax resigned, he could pick a replacement who would supplant Cox in the line of gubernatorial succession.

If Herring resigns, the legislature would pick his replacement if lawmakers in session; if not, then Northam would pick a replacement who would serve until the legislature reconvenes.

The current legislative session is scheduled to end on February 23.

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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam now says he is not in racist photo, refuses to resign

Northam’s amended narrative comes after growing number of Democrats pressure him to step down

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

RICHMOND (CFP) — A day after saying he was “deeply sorry” for a photo on his medical school yearbook page in which two men are shown wearing racist costumes, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam now says he believes he is not pictured in the photo and will not resign.

But while addressing reporters Saturday with his political career hanging by a thread, Northam admitted to another incident that could compound his difficulties — that he darkened his face with shoe polish to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest in 1984, the same year the offensive photo was published.

Northam address reporters with wife, Pam (From NBC News via YouTube)

After the news conference, during which the governor offered a frequently disjointed narrative under questioning from reporters, his political position deteriorated further.

Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, called for his resignation, saying they “no longer believe he can effectively serve as Governor of Virginia.”

And Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax — a Northam ally who would take over if he departs — issued a statement that stopped just short of calling on the governor to go.

“I cannot condone the actions from his past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping, and intimidation,” said Fairfax, who is African American. “At this critical and defining moment in the history of Virginia and this nation, we need leaders with the ability to unite and help us rise to the better angels of our nature.”

The Democratic governor said his initial statement on Friday — made after the photo appeared on a conservative website, Big League Politics — was an apology directed at people who were offended by the photo, not an admission that he had participated in it.

“When my staff showed the photo in question yesterday, I was seeing it for the first time,” Northam said the news conference in the Executive Mansion, standing next to his wife, Pam. “When I was confronted with these images yesterday, I was appalled that they appeared on my page. But I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo.”

“I stand by my statement of apology to the many Virginians who were hurt by seeing this content,” he said. “It is disgusting. It is offensive. It is racist. And it was my responsibility to recognize and prevent it from being published in the first place.”

Photo from Northam’s page in 1984 yearbook

The photo was published in a yearbook for students at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, from which Northam graduated in 1984.

The yearbook page is headlined with Northam’s name and contains two pictures of him, along with a third photo in which one man is wearing blackface and another is dressed in Ku Klux Klan regalia.

Northam said that after looking more closely at the photo and talking to his medical school classmates overnight, he does not believe he is the man in blackface and that “there is no way I have ever been” in a KKK uniform.

He also said he had no recollection of attending the party where the photo was taken.

The governor conceded that he understands “that many people will find this difficult to believe.”

Northam has come under intense pressure to resign, not only from Republicans but from within his own party. But he said he would stay as governor and try to repair relationships with those offended by the photo.

“If I were to listen to the voices calling on my to resign my office today, I could spare myself from the difficult path that lies ahead. I could avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past,” he said. “I cannot in good conscience chose the path that would be easier for me in an effort to duck my responsibility to reconcile.”

However, Northam indicated he might revisit the issue of resignation if the controversy affected his ability to serve as governor.

The lengthening list of Democrats calling for Northam to step aside includes his predecessor as governor, Terry McAuliffe; Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee; and six Democrats seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, including U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, both African Americans.

Missing from that list are Virginia’s Democratic U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

During the news conference, Northam said in 1984, while an Army doctor in San Antonio, he “darkened” his face with shoe polish while impersonating Michael Jackson in a dance contest, which he said he won because he could moonwalk.

He said he recalled the episode years later while talking about blackface with an African-American aide, which made him realize how offensive his conduct had been.

“In the time and place where I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognized as abhorrent today were commonplace,” he said.

Northam — who ran for state office four times without anyone making the yearbook photo an issue — also said “there was an agenda involved” with whomever provided the yearbook page to Big League Politics, although he declined to speculate on a possible motive.

The website did not reveal the source of the photo.

The photo’s release came amid a firestorm of criticism aimed at Northam over comments he made in support of a bill easing restrictions on late-term abortions, which led conservative critics to accuse him of endorsing infanticide.

Describing a late-term abortion procedure, Northam said, “so in this particular example if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

Northam, 59, grew up on a farm on Virginia’s southeastern shore. After graduating from medical school, he served as a physician in the Army before entering private practice as a pediatric neurologist.

He was elected as governor in 2017, after serving a term as lieutenant governor and six years in the Virginia Senate.

Fairfax, 39, an attorney from the Washington D.C. suburbs, was elected lieutenant governor in 2017, after making an unsuccessful run for attorney general in 2013.

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Democrats roll in state elections in Virginia

Northam elected governor; Democrats sweep statewide races and make big gains in legislature

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

RICHMOND (CFP) — In a huge night for Democrats, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam easily defeated Republican Ed Gillespie to claim Virginia’s governorship.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

Democrats also won two other statewide offices, and the GOP lost its once-comfortable majority in the lower house of the state legislature, a stunning feat that included election of the nation’s first-ever transgender legislator.

Northam’s 54-45 percent victory over Gillespie in the November 7 vote was nearly twice as large as Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory over Donald Trump in 2016 and was built on 20-point victories in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and Richmond.

Holding the governorship in Virginia is a boon for Democrats frustrated by a string of heartbreaking defeats in special and off-year elections since Trump took the White House. The result, however, was a hold, not a takeaway, and it came in the lone Southern state Clinton carried.

Speaking to jubilant supporters in Fairfax, Northam offered a thinly veiled rebuke to the president’s take-no-prisoners style of politics.

“It was said that the eyes of the nation are on the commonwealth,” Northam said. “Today, Virginians have answered and have spoken. Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry and to end the politics that have torn this country apart.”

After Northam was declared the winner, Trump, visiting South Korea, sent a tweet taking issue with Gillespie’s decision to distance himself from the president: “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for.”

The specter of Trump hovered over the governor’s race. Gillespie did not invite the president to cross the Potomac to campaign for him, angering some in his party’s pro-Trump base, but Northam still tried to hang Trump around Gillespie’s neck, accusing the GOP nominee of figuratively “standing right next” to the president, even if literally he had not.

Ed Gillespie

In his concession speech, Gillespie thanked his campaign workers and supporters but did not mention the president.

“I felt called to serve. I hope I’ll discern what (God’s) calling is for me next,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie’s loss is his second statewide defeat in four years. In 2014, he challenged Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner, coming to within 18,000 votes of beating him.

In the race for lieutenant governor, Democrat Justin Fairfax, an attorney and former federal prosecutor from the D.C. suburbs, defeated Republican State Senator Jill Vogel. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring also won his re-election race over Republican John Adams.

Perhaps the most shocking result of the night came in the races for the House of Delegates, the lower house of Virginia’s legislature. Republicans entered election day holding a 66-34 majority; Democrats ousted at least 11 incumbents and picked up three open seats that the GOP had held.

With five races still too close to call, Democrats had 48 seats and Republicans 47. Of the five races left outstanding, Republicans were ahead in three and Democrats in two. If those results hold, the chamber would be evenly divided, 50-50.

In four of the five House races still to be decided, the leads are less than 125 votes, making recounts likely.

Virginia Delegate-Elect Danica Roem

Among the winners was Danica Roem, a transgender woman who won a seat in Prince William County by defeating veteran GOP Delegate Bob Marshall, a 14-term social conservative who had described himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and insisted on referring to Roem with male pronouns.

When Roem takes office, she will be the the first transgender person in the United States to be elected and serve in a state legislature while openly acknowledging her gender identity.

Northam’s win in the South’s lone off-year governor’s election gives Democrats three of the region’s 14 governorships, with Northam joining Louisiana Governor Jon Bell Edwards and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. The incumbent Democrat in Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe, was barred by state law from seeking re-election.

Northam, 58, comes to the governorship after 10 years in elected office, first as a state senator and then lieutenant governor.  A former U.S. Army doctor, he has practiced pediatric neurology at a children’s hospital in Norfolk since 1992.

With his win, Democrats have now won three of the last four governor’s races in Virginia, a once solidly Republican state that has trended Democratic in recent years, primarily due to an influx of new voters into the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

Voters in Virginia set to decide governor’s race

Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam battle to lead the only Southern state Hillary Clinton carried

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

RICHMOND (CFP) — Virginians decide Tuesday whether to raise their Democratic lieutenant governor to the state’s top job or turn the reins over to a senior operative from George W. Bush’s White House.

The lone off-year governor’s race in the South pits Ed Gillespie, a Bush aide and former head of the Republican National Committee, against Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, a pediatrician who has spent the past decade in state politics.

In addition to the marquee governor’s race, statewide races for lieutenant governor and attorney general are on the ballot, and energized Democrats are trying to flip a slew of state House seats to gain bragging rights heading into the 2018 midterms.

Polls across the commonwealth open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

Of seven non-partisan public polls conducted since October 29 in the governor’s race, six showed results within the margin of error, making the results statistically insignificant. Just one poll, from Quinnipiac University, showed Northam with a lead of at least 1.2 percent outside the margin of error.

However, that Quinniapiac poll showed Gillespie had made up substantial ground against Northam in the final week of the campaign, particularly among independents, among whom the difference between the candidates was statistically insignificant.

Conspicuously absent from the race — President Donald Trump, who was never invited to cross the Potomac to campaign with Gillespie, although Vice President Mike Pence did make an appearance on his behalf. Trump did, however, endorse Gillespie on Twitter.

Ed Gillespie

Virginia was the only Southern state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, due in part to her stronger-than-usual showing the Republican-leaning Washington, D.C. suburbs in the northern part of the state. So the Gillespie campaign had to thread a difficult needle of not galvanizing anti-Trump voters by campaigning with the president, while at the same time not antagonizing ardent Trump supporters in more conservative parts of the state.

Indeed, the potency of the Trump brand among the Republican base nearly took Gillespie down in June when, despite being a prohibitive favorite, he almost lost the party’s primary to Corey Stewart, Trump’s one-time state campaign manager.

Stewart, who is running for the U.S. Senate in 2018, told Politico that Trump supporters were “bewildered” and “offended” by Gillespie’s decision to distance himself from Trump, predicting that it would hurt Gillespie by discouraging the president’s supporters from turning out.

Northam, in turn, has tried to hang Trump around Gillespie’s neck, running a TV ad during the final weekend of the campaign accusing the GOP nominee of figuratively “standing right next” to the president, even if literally he had not.

Northam, 58, joined the U.S. Army to complete his medical training after graduating from the Virginia Military Institute and has worked as a pediatric neurologist at a children’s hospital in Norfolk since 1992. He has admitted to voting for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 before he became active in state politics, saying that he had been “underinformed” at the time.

In 2007, he was elected as a Democrat to the Virginia Senate, representing a district that included parts of Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore. In 2013, he became lieutenant governor, running alongside incumbent Governor Terry McAuliffe, who, under state law, can’t run for a second consecutive term.

Northam was challenged in the primary by former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, who tried to counter Northam’s establishment support by mobilizing Bernie Sanders supporters. In the end, Northam won by 12 points, though he has continued to face criticism from his left flank during the campaign for supporting two controversial gas pipeline projects and opposing the establishment of sanctuary cities in Virginia.

After working as Bush’s communications director in the 2000 campaign, Gillespie, 56, started a lobbying firm in Washington and was elected chairman of the RNC in 2003. He went back to the White House in 2007 as a counselor to the president and served until the end of Bush’s second term in 2009.

In 2014, Gillespie challenged Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner. Though Warner’s seat was considered safe, Gillespie came within 18,000 votes of beating him, in what would have been the biggest upset of the 2014 campaign.

In the lieutenant governor’s race, Republican State Senator Jill Vogel, from Fauquier County west of Washington, is facing Democrat Justin Fairfax, an attorney and former federal prosecutor who lives in surburban Fairfax.

A controversy erupted in the closing days of the campaign when Northam’s campaign dropped Fairfax, who is African-American, from a direct mail piece sent to voters because of his opposition to the two pipeline projects Northam supports.

Critics called his exclusion racist, a charge that Northam’s camp denied. But the flap could have consequences for a race in which Northam will need strong African-American support to win.

In the race for attorney general, the incumbent Democrat, Mark Herring, is being challenged by Republican John Adams, a Richmond lawyer who once clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In addition to the three statewide races, 100 seats in Virginia’s House of Delegates, the lower house of the legislature, are up for grabs. Despite Virginia’s status as a swing state in presidential politics, Republicans currently hold 66 seats, to just 34 for Democrats.

However, Democrats are contesting 88 of those seats in 2017, including challenges in 17 Republican-held seats that Clinton carried in 2016. So the results in Virginia are likely to be viewed as a bellweather for what might happen in 2018, particularly if Democrats make gains in suburban districts near Washington and Richmond.

State Senate seats are not up in Virginia this year; Republicans control the Senate, 21 to 19.

Democrat Northam, Republican Gillespie will face off in Virginia governor’s race

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.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

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.

Ed Gillespie

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.

Primaries for Virginia governor echo 2016 presidential race

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.

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.

Virginia Governor 2017: Contested primaries shaping up in both parties

Northam, Gillespie face challenges from anti-establishment rivals

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

virginia mugRICHMOND (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.

Ed Gillespie

Ed Gillespie

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.

County Supervisor Corey Stewart

County Supervisor Corey Stewart

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.

State Senator Frank Wagner

State Senator Frank Wagner

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.

Denver Riggleman

Denver Riggleman

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.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

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.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriollo

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello

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.

The Democratic primary race is likely to feature some of the remaining currents from the bruising 2016 battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

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.

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