The initial hot take on the Virginia gubernatorial primary was that the Democrats were reprising the bitter battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, while Republicans were putting on a coronation. Now that the votes are in, the opposite is closer to the truth: The left is celebrating its “unity,” and the right is openly disparaging the very idea.
The choice of Virginia’s Democratic establishment, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, not only defeated Bernie Sanders-endorsed former Rep. Tom Perriello by double digits, he did it with a smile. Negative campaigning and policy disputes were kept to a minimum—Northam publicly denounced an anonymously funded PAC attack against his rival—as well as bruised egos. Perriello quickly and enthusiastically endorsed Northam on Twitter: “Let’s go win this thing—united.” Top Perriello backer Sen. Elizabeth Warren followed his lead, christening Northam a “great” candidate who will be a “strong fighter for VA families.”
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Meanwhile, Virginia’s right-wing enfant terrible, Corey Stewart, shocked the Republican establishment, overcoming huge deficits in polls and cash to miss knocking off former national party chairman Ed Gillespie by about 4,000 votes. Stewart, who managed to get fired from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for being too confrontational, ran blistering ads accusing Gillespie of being soft on immigration, abortion and Confederate memorials. In fact, Stewart’s ugly attempt to sow conservative backlash to Charlottesville’s planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue worked better than anyone expected. Unlike Perriello, Stewart did not concede last night, declaring, “There is one word you will never hear from me, and that’s ‘unity.’”
The Democratic harmony stands in contrast to last weekend’s boisterous “People’s Summit,” which featured Sanders devotees determined to remake the Democratic Party or abandon it. Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who just became a fellow at the new Sanders Institute, warned, “Unity for unity’s sake is not going to happen.” But such threats on the left are not being backed up with political muscle.
In fact, for Sanders and his supporters to rally around Perriello required ideological compromise. Granted, like Sanders, Perriello wanted state Democrats to chart an ambitious legislative course, including a tax hike on the wealthy. And like Sanders, Perriello faced a more cautious candidate who resisted such proposals, which would be dead on arrival in the Legislature. (Despite Virginia’s increasingly blue hue, Republicans have controlled the House of Delegates for 17 years and currently hold a two-thirds majority.)
But the ideological distance between Northam and Perriello was not as great as that between Clinton and Sanders. Northam might reflect Clinton’s pragmatism, but Perriello is hardly a democratic socialist, having eschewed Bernie’s plans for single-payer health care and free four-year public college tuition. Northam was able to muzzle criticism of his past support for President George W. Bush by chiding Perriello for his past rightward lean on guns and abortion.
They agreed far more than they disagreed. Perriello aide Ian Sams tweeted after the loss than Northam “is the most progressive #VAGov nom in recent memory,” citing his support for a $15 minimum wage and free community college. Beyond taxes, their greatest policy disagreement was over proposed gas pipelines, which Perriello opposed and Northam avoided discussing. Perriello also criticized Northam for taking donations from the state’s biggest energy company.
But Perriello didn’t follow Sanders’ demand that Democrats reject all fat checks. He accepted six-figure donations from philanthropists George Soros and Sonja Smith, as well as $25,000 from the pro-charter school group Emerson Collective (which may explain why Northam had the support of the state’s main teachers union). Yet he attracted Sanders and his supporters, anyway.
Perriello’s defeat does not deliver a direct blow to the Sanders platform or his strict small-donor strategy. But Perriello’s reluctance to fully emulate Sanders speaks to how far the Vermonter is from remaking the party in his image.
Northam now enters the general election with a Democratic wind at his back. Approval for incumbent Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe it nearly double his disapproval. Democratic primary turnout set a Virginia gubernatorial primary turnout record, outpacing Republicans by about 177,000 voters. And the party’s base will be motivated to rebuke Trump. A few die-hards on the left might not jump on the Northam bandwagon (pipeline opponents briefly disrupted Northam’s victory party). But if Northam maintains his 11-point lead over Gillespie in last month’s Washington Post poll through the fall, he’ll have plenty of cushion. Notwithstanding Turner’s threat, Northam is not the Virginian facing a fractured party.
That would be Ed Gillespie. After his near-death experience, he has a political puzzle to solve: how to simultaneously woo Stewart’s neo-Confederates while reaching out to nonwhite voters who make up one-third of the Virginia electorate.
Gillespie had been trying to maintain a moderate disposition in preparation for the general election, emphasizing economic growth instead of waging culture war. Under pressure from Stewart, he tried to finesse the Confederate controversy by arguing local governments should decide whether or not to keep war monuments. In a nod to Virginia’s growing multiculturalism, he cut videos promoting his tax cut plan with Spanish and Korean subtitles.
The culture war within Virginia’s Republican Party flared up not just in the race for governor, but also the one for lieutenant governor. In the final days, state Senator and primary candidate Bryce Reeves bluntly attacked his colleague and rival Jill Vogel for voting to confirm the judicial nomination of a gay man. Vogel had also displayed a social liberal streak when she voted to ban housing and employment discrimination against gay and transgender people. Yet Vogel edged Reeves by just under 10,000 votes, slightly wider than Gillespie’s margin of victory.
The wins by Gillespie and Vogel indicate that a thin majority of the state’s Republicans are not consumed by bigotry, while the strong second places for Stewart and Reeves suggest that the hard right is getting only harder to placate in Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
Division in a primary doesn’t automatically spell doom in the general; the 2016 Republican presidential primary and the 2008 Democratic presidential primary had plenty of strife that melted away by November. However, overcoming intra-party division is far more challenging without partisan enthusiasm. Democrats had that in spades on Tuesday night,
Stewart’s rejection of “unity” suggests that Trump loyalists care less about winning elections than waging culture war. Consider this: The Republican candidate with the strongest turnout this year was the guy who body-slammed a reporter.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties are saddled with ideological and cultural divisions. Trump’s nationalism still chafes the Republican business class. Bernie’s populists still scoff at Democratic incrementalism. Trump’s victory did not resolve all of the Republican Party’s tensions, and one gubernatorial primary is not going to stop all of the Democratic squabbling.
But what Virginia showed is that Democrats are having the more civilized internal debate, they are establishing more common policy ground and they are making it easier to join forces after the votes are tallied. Democrats have the unity edge. And if Republicans continue to treat “unity” like a dirty word, Democrats are sure to keep it.