Past the Paste Button
Can He Bridge the Bernie-Hillary Divide?
Tom Perriello is offering himself as a ‘pragmatic populist,’ pitching the adjective toward the Clinton wing and the noun toward the Sanders wing.
I know it’s Comey week, but return with me to electoral politics for a moment. We’re a week away from the Virginia gubernatorial primaries. The Republican race is uninteresting, but the Democratic side is worth watching closely, but for reasons that are in my view pretty much the opposite of what almost everyone else is writing.
The Democratic primary pits Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam against former Charlottesville area Rep. Tom Perriello. When the national political press have swooped in to cover the race, they’ve usually tried to map it onto the party’s broader Hillary-Bernie divide. I guess one can see why. Perriello has Bernie Sanders’ endorsement, for one thing. For another, he’s the upstart who got into the race late and appears to have created more energy around himself than the experts thought. And Northam is an establishment guy who talks about working across the aisle and has nabbed the endorsement of basically every Democrat in the state (because Perriello got in so late).
But that’s lazy paste-button journalism. I think it’s much more interesting than that. To me, Perriello is about as close to a synthesis of the Hillary and Bernie wings as the Democratic Party is going to get. It’s pretty clear that that’s what he’s trying to be in calling himself a “pragmatic populist,” pitching the adjective toward the Clinton wing and the noun toward the Sanders wing. And if he wins next Tuesday’s primary—and it’s roughly neck-and-neck right now in the polls—and then beats GOP favorite Ed Gillespie, whom he led by 13 points in one recent poll, Perriello could actually become an instant force in national Democratic politics in a way Northam, who is all establishment, could not.
Perriello has run pretty nimbly along the Clinton-Sanders fault line. Consider the staffing hires he announced all at once in early February. His campaign manager is a Bernie person. His communications chief is a Hillary person. A pollster and senior adviser also come from Clintonville, while the digital team is from Sanderstown. Meanwhile, he’s been endorsed by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and Clinton campaign chief John Podesta.
“We’d really like to take the policy depth and managerial experience of Secretary Clinton matched with [Elizabeth] Warren and Sanders’ understanding of just how corrupt and unequal the system has become and with President Obama’s sense of the aspirational—that even in these dark times, we do want to keep a focus on hope and those things that hold us together in our common humanity,” Perriello told me last week.
Perriello has positioned himself to Northam’s left on some issues. He wants to raise high-end personal and corporate tax rates to offer two years of free community college or trade school, and he’s for a $15 minimum wage. Northam has a free community college plan that would be paid for by requiring students to perform a year of in-state community service.
It’s not clear how Perriello’s campaign is playing in the more rural parts of the state. There are two pipeline projects proposed in southwestern Virginia. Northam has avoided taking a position. Perriello is opposed and says that when he explains his opposition in terms of monopoly control, red audiences get it. “The reason that my pipeline position is playing as well in the red counties as well as in the blue counties,” he told me, “is because they can see that they don’t want to live in a world where one company with enormous influence in the legislature gets to decide what fuel we’re gonna use, where we’re gonna extract it, how we’re gonna transport it, over whose land, for what compensation into everyone’s house at what price. It’s just not the world we live in.”
The general assumption, however, has been that Perriello can win the primary only by enlarging the electorate. When I watched him speak last Thursday night at a meeting of Loudon County Democrats in Leesburg, he talked a lot about needing to reach out to new voters. “We want young voters, diverse voters, African Americans, and what I call the new Americas coalition,” he told me after his talk. “These groups have not always been politicized in Virginia state elections, but Trump has kind of made that non-negotiable.”
Trump will surely be a factor in the general election—it’s worth recalling here that he got just 44 percent of the vote in the commonwealth against Clinton, which is the lowest for any Republican since Richard Nixon (what? Yes—Nixon won Virginia in 1968 with 43 percent; Hubert Humphrey got 32 percent, and George Wallace 23 percent). How much a factor Trump is in this primary is a little harder to discern. Resistance sentiment is motivating Democratic voters in Virginia as everywhere. Northam is up with an ad in which he calls the president a “narcissistic maniac.” If anxiety about Trump is driving this vote, one would think that would benefit the younger and more left-leaning candidate.
Perriello’s biggest hurdle may be that most of the state’s Democrats had already gotten behind Northam when he decided to get in. That kind of party claim on loyalty can be pretty unshakeable. Example: Northam’s campaign is being chaired by a state delegate from Newport News, Marcia Price, who in 2016 had been the only Democrat in the lower chamber to back Sanders over Clinton. A Perriello supporter was explaining this to me at the Loudon County meeting. I saw a healthy sprinkling of Perriello buttons, and he got a robust applause when he was introduced, but some people, this supporter said, are a little reticent about making their support too public.
If Northam wins, he can probably keep the governor’s mansion Democratic. Trump’s approval rating in the state in mid-April was 36 percent. It’s undoubtedly gone down since, and is surely going down further. The odds would be pretty long against Gillespie winning under circumstances like that. So that would be fine.
But if Perriello wins, he could be a figure of real influence in the national party and play a leadership role in developing a post-Sanders-Clinton new consensus—thereby giving journalists a new cliché to gnaw on for a while.