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Primary concerns / May 31, 2017
For as long as I can remember, Labor Day has been deemed the traditional kick-off of the fall campaign season. We’re only a few days past Memorial Day, but no worries: the time is ripe to look at the June 13 primaries to choose major party nominees for Virginia governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. “Ripe” should really be read as “long overdue” but you’ve got to capitalize on opportunities as they come up, and arbitrary pauses with the holiday calendar are no exception.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first, starting with the Democratic and Republican choices for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Why is this a quick topic to dispense with? Simple: because I know practically nothing about any of the downballot candidates! An exception is Mark Herring, Virginia’s Democratic Attorney General, who is running for re-election unopposed within his own party. Herring has been a superb AG and national leader in the legal fight to thwart Donald Trump’s ill-considered, thinly-disguised Muslim travel ban. Long before Trump came on the scene, Herring distinguished himself with aggressive efforts to combat consumer fraud and Virginia’s opioid addiction crisis. We’ll have more to say about Attorney General Herring as the Nov. 7 general election draws near.

On the Republican side, the lone candidate for the party’s AG nomination is John Adams, a McGuire Woods lawyer making his first run for public office. Both the Democratic and Republican Party sport three-person races for lieutenant governor: on the Democratic side, the candidates include two former federal prosecutors, Justin Fairfax and Gene Rossi, and Susan Platt, a political aide and lobbyist. All are from Northern Virginia. The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor are State Senators Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier) and Bryce Reeves (Spotsylvania) and Delegate Glenn Davis (Virginia Beach). I have next to no idea who any of these people are. Vogel and Reeves have achieved some measure of notoriety with starring roles in a dirty little campaign scandal involving emails, electronic eavesdropping and allegations of an extramarital affair, just the sort of thing that Republicans have been known to get their jollies over. I can’t bring myself to work up a shred of interest, much less regurgitate the details of this sordid saga. (Okay, if you insist: An anonymous email mysteriously surfaced that accused Reeves of carrying on an extramarital affair, which he denies, only for everyone to learn the email was sent from an account that just so happens to have the same IP address as Vogel’s home internet and her husband’s cellphone, which is something the Vogels say could have happened only if someone hacked their devices, which Reeves and his lawyers think is a fishy tale and ... um, just fire an elephant dart at me whenever you’re ready for this to stop.) Reeves is generally considered the most right-wing of the Lt. Governor hopefuls, which means he’ll probably win, although in a better world conservative voters would declare a pox on the Reeves-Vogel mudwrestling tag team and go with the traditional business candidate, Davis. We’ll see.

Which brings us to the gubernatorial races. (In Virginia, by the way, you can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries — just not both at once.) Let’s take the Republican field first: The contenders are Ed Gillespie, Frank Wagner and Corey Stewart. Gillespie is longtime party pro — or hack, take your pick — who was a top political advisor to George W. Bush and made big bucks as a lobbyist for Enron, the crooked energy company that went belly-up in the early 2000s. Why these “qualifications” of Gillespie’s aren’t in fact disqualifying is a mystery to me. State Senator Wagner (Virginia Beach) actually has a pretty decent record in the General Assembly, but he might be the most noxious choice for Southside Virginia for no other reason than his longstanding advocacy of uranium mining.

That leaves Corey Stewart, an appalling gasbag of a candidate whose idea of campaign strategy is to make a non-stop play for the outrage vote, in an apparent bid to out-Trump Trump. (Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, was dismissed in the fall as the Virginia co-chairman of the Trump campaign. How Stewart could have gotten himself fired by the same man who keeps Sean Spicer on the payroll is a question that more high-powered minds will have to divine.) Stewart’s campaign shtick, such as it is, has been to wrap himself in the Confederate flag as an avowed enemy of political correctness and champion of white nationalism and pride. If Virginia Republicans enter the ballot box June 13 and choose this clown as their gubernatorial nominee, they’ll deserve every bit of the clubbing that lies ahead in November. Presumably there’s some sanity left in the ranks and the party faithful won’t let Stewart worm his way to the top of the ticket, but you never know.

Virginia is one of only two states that’ll elect a new governor in 2017, a year removed from the presidential race (New Jersey is the other). With President Trump trashing little-D democratic norms that have guided America since its founding, there’s ample reason to believe the political energy has shifted left to the opposition, a.k.a. the Democratic Party. That fact alone makes Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary between Tom Perriello and Ralph Northam worth watching. In fact, the Northam-Perriello race is probably the second most-important election in America this year, after the November vote for Virginia governor itself. (The New Jersey governor’s race is unlikely to offer much drama, especially since Republicans are stuck with the task of running a would-be successor to widely-loathed Gov. Chris Christie.) Either Perriello or Northam would head into the general election as the presumed favorite, insofar as Virginia is plainly becoming a blue state (it was the only Southern state to vote for Hillary Clinton) and Trump is likely to be an anvil around the neck of the GOP nominee, especially in and around the D.C. suburbs of Northern Vir-ginia. Also, both Northam and Perriello are widely acceptable, even beloved, among Virginia Democrats. Either would be able to unify the party as they hoist the Demcratic banner in the fall.

Still, both men can’t win, and there are genuine stylistic differences between them, so naturally the race has taken on an air of significance that far outweighs any differences in policy, which are slight if not entirely non-existent. Tom Perriello, of course, used to be our congressman. (He was Virginia’s 5th District representative from 2008-2010 after upsetting Virgil Goode in a presidential year and losing his seat to Robert Hurt in the midterm election.) I got to know Congressman Perriello during his time in office and can attest to the fact that he is intellectually brilliant, politically savvy, surpassed by few in his grasp of public policy, and out-worked by no one. Ralph Northam, Virginia’s current Lt. Governor, I haven’t met, but he’s a product of a small rural community (Eastern Shore of Virginia) who went to VMI and then on to the Army, along the way becoming a pediatric neurologist who literally helps to save the lives of children, so how slouchy is that? These are two very impressive candidates. Yet because people who eat and breathe politics are suckers for pat storylines, the Perriello-Northam race has become a proxy battle in the progressive-vs.-establishment, Berniebro-vs.-Hillarycrat struggle for control of the Democratic Party. There are known aspects about both candidates that contradict this narrative, but once these things start rolling, they’re awfully hard to knock off the tracks.

Ben Tribbett, who blogs under the pseudonym “Not Larry Sabato,” offered a sharp take on the Perriello-Northam race in an article this week on (hat tip to the BlueVirginia blog for pointing up the reference): “It is really more a battle between the national wing of the Democratic Party versus the Virginia wing of the party.” Yup. While Perriello has always had a special genius for attracting media attention, Ralph Northam is beloved by many Virginia Democrats for his nitty-gritty work on behalf of lower-ballot candidates seeking elective state office. Temperamentally and stylistically, Northam’s a better fit in Richmond, with a low-key manner that plays better in legislative backrooms than Perriello’s more brash personality. The question that Democrats have to ask themselves is what this more conciliatory, low-boil approach is good for. Not much as far as action in the Republican-dominated General Assembly is concerned.

I waver back and forth deciding who I’ll vote for — Perriello one day, Northam the next — but whoever wins, the central task for Democrats is to expand the ranks of the party, in this year’s election and in low-profile legislative campaigns to come. Republicans have a more reliable base of older voters who pay attention to races for House of Delegates and State Senate. Democrats, not so much. The party is in dire need of leadership that can motivate less-engaged voters who nevertheless are open to the Democratic message, as evidenced by the fact Democrats currently hold every major statewide office in Virginia. No Democratic governor — progressive, establishment, folksy, stiff, green, blue — can accomplish much without legislative allies, and lots of them. This speaks to a motivational and organizational challenge that presents the real test for the prospective Democratic nominee. On balance, I’m inclined to think Perriello is a slightly better candidate for the job, but opinions will vary on this score.

At any rate, there’s an election taking place less than two weeks from now. Get out and vote! Politics may seem as though it’s never been more trying and divisive, but nothing ever changes unless people take it upon themselves to bring about change. Protesting is fine, questioning your elected representatives is good, and spouting off about politics on Facebook is … a thing. None of it matches the importance of making your voice heard at the ballot box. So by all means, vote. And may all the best candidates win.

CORRECTION: This column originally referred to Ralph Northam as a pediatric neurosurgeon. He is a pediatric neurologist.

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