Can Tom Perriello Catch Ralph Northam?

The former congressman is hoping for historic Democratic turnout in Tuesday’s primary for governor.

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello speaks with about 100 voters in Leesburg, Va., on June 7.
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
June 12, 2017, 8 p.m.

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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