LEESBURG, Va.—Tom Perriello led a recent stump speech with some political science.
The former one-term congressman explained to about 100 voters at a Loudoun County community center that Democratic gubernatorial primaries here tend to be “sleepy” affairs compared to presidential races, trending “older, whiter, and more suburban.”
What Perriello wants—and needs—is an electorate that reflects “the fullness of the Obama coalition,” he said, before rolling up his sleeves.
“In this campaign, we’ve been able to do something already that’s really exciting,” he said. “We’ve been able to explode this myth of whether the Democratic Party needs to excite our base or expand to working-class white voters.”
That approach will be tested Tuesday as Virginia hosts its first competitive Democratic primary for governor since 2009. Perriello has run in overdrive chasing Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, and national observers will interpret the result as a referendum on both President Trump and the Democratic Party.
Regardless of who wins, the primary’s conclusion kicks off the most closely watched statewide race of the year, most likely against Republican Ed Gillespie. But to win the nomination, each candidate has pursued distinct demographic paths.
Perriello, who has made opposing Trump a cornerstone of his upstart bid, hopes to coalesce minorities, millennials, and disaffected or first-time voters—a turnout strategy borne in part out of necessity.
“We certainly are hoping to turn out nontraditional primary voters, and that takes effort,” Perriello said in an interview after the town hall. “But I think that’s what the last six months have been about.”
Northam has been running since before Trump entered the presidential race in June 2015. Several months later, state Attorney General Mark Herring stepped aside for Northam, who coalesced support from other Richmond Democrats.
The lieutenant governor has since traveled the state helping down-ballot candidates and banked a $2.3 million war chest with the help of former donors to outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and former Gov. Tim Kaine—all before Perriello splashed into the race in January.
Since then, Perriello has kept pace with Northam, who has funded about 90 percent of his campaign from in-state donors. By contrast, more than half of Perriello’s haul has come from out of state, thanks to a national profile developed while in Congress, at the Center for American Progress, and at the State Department.
Progressive icons such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have starred in his TV ads or campaigned for him, as have former staff of President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Footage of Obama at a 2010 rally for Perriello was also utilized.
“When you’re running an insurgent campaign against a guy who’s been in state politics for 10 years, who has a PAC, and who came in with a [cash-on-hand] advantage, you’ve got to find ways to raise big and raise quick to get competitive, and we did that,” Perriello spokesman Ian Sams said. “Any Democrat who wins the primary is going to need to have a national fundraising base in order to compete with Ed Gillespie, who certainly does.”
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chair and counselor to President George W. Bush, told reporters in Arlington last week that he didn’t prefer to face either Democrat.
A poll conducted by The Washington Post and the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government last month found that self-described liberals statistically split between Perriello and Northam.
The dividing lines are more demographic than ideological: Perriello led the same poll among young voters while Northam cornered seniors. Perriello performed better in southwest Virginia, where he has repeatedly campaigned. Northam, an Eastern Shore native, led in the Tidewater, where, along with Richmond, his fundraising is concentrated. Perriello, by contrast, grabs most of his in-state support from the Charlottesville area, which he represented in Congress for two years.
Fundraising and polling show a tight race in the Washington suburbs. Both candidates spent the waning days of the primary barnstorming the Beltway, where Perriello has lived since losing reelection in 2010. Operatives predicted the area will produce a plurality of the Democratic electorate.
“The battle is over the primary vote in Richmond, which is … heavily African-American, and Northern Virginia,” said Jesse Ferguson, a national Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser on Brian Moran’s unsuccessful 2009 campaign for governor.
There is evidence that Democrats will see the type of wave that Perriello is banking on. Absentee-ballot requests surpassed the total for last year’s presidential primary, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. And polling released by Perriello’s campaign of past primary and presidential voters showed him nominally leading.
But Northam has used the head start to his advantage, spending twice as much as Perriello on TV, nabbing the backing of the Post editorial board, and closing his paid-media campaign by highlighting support from black legislators, McAuliffe, and Sens. Mark Warner and Kaine. A pro-Northam PAC, over Northam’s objections, has also spent five figures attacking Perriello’s vote against taxpayer-funded abortions.
Plus, Perriello won’t have new voters to himself. Polling conducted by Northam’s campaign showed that voters who skipped the last two gubernatorial primaries were breaking for Northam by 5 points.
“If our poll is correct,” said Northam spokesman David Turner, “there is no path for him, because that means we’re winning those voters he’s bringing into the fold.”
If Perriello does succeed, he’ll accomplish what even McAuliffe was unable to do when he lost his first bid for governor in 2009 to state Sen. Creigh Deeds. The former Democratic National Committee chair hired Obama’s volunteer coordinators to help replicate the remarkable turnout.
“We were looking at Obama-surge voters,” said Delacey Skinner, a communications staffer for McAuliffe in 2009 and Kaine in 2005. “In retrospect, that seems like a far-fetched idea.”
McAuliffe, like Perriello, also had national backers, including former President Clinton. Deeds, a Northam supporter, said in an interview that his connections in-state and an endorsement from the Post helped counter McAuliffe’s money and outside support.
Deeds recalled what McAuliffe told him at a recent meeting: “Those out-of-state endorsements did real well for me, didn’t they?”
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