Virginia Democrats face first battle in war for party's soul

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  • Virginia's primary for governor is June 13
  • Gov. Terry McAuliffe can't seek a second term, per state law

Washington (CNN)If Democratic voters thought -- or hoped -- the Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton saga was long since settled, then they apparently need to think again.

Just across the Potomac River from the nation's capital, a fierce fight is playing out in the race for Virginia governor pitting the Sanders wing of the party, as channeled by former Rep. Tom Perriello, against the Clinton wing of the party, represented by Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
The comparison seems apt on paper. Northam boasts support from all of the state's prominent Democrats and has a lengthy career in state government, which helped make him the consensus pick of the party establishment. Perriello, meanwhile, entered the race late, has zero experience in state government and is running as an unabashed liberal.
    But longtime Virginia political experts believe the comparison is not that simple.
    "It is really more a battle between the national wing of the Democratic Party versus the Virginia wing of the party," said Democratic political operative Ben Tribbett, who is not supporting a candidate in the race but has been tracking voting trends in the party for years.
    Tribbett believes Perriello's run is a test case for Democrats in Virginia.
    "The Democratic model in Virginia for several decades has been trying to get elected in a red state," he said. "Now that Virginia is a blue state and it looks like it is getting bluer, the model for electing a governor in Virginia has changed."
    Northam represents the type of successful candidates that Virginia Democrats have run for years. Governor-turned-Senator Mark Warner once proudly boasted his "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, talked up his "Sportsmen for Warner" advocacy group and embraced the endorsement of NASCAR stars.
    In 2017, the two gubernatorial candidates are fighting over their mixed record on 2nd Amendment issues. Perriello is distancing himself from his own A rating from the NRA as a member of Congress. Northam is spinning a perfect 100% legislative voting record in 2013 from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a local gun rights advocacy group.
    "I can't imagine Chuck Robb or Gerry Baliles or Mark Warner or Tim Kaine running the type of campaign that Tom Perriello is running," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center of Politics, referring to Democrats who triumphed in races for governor since the 1980s.
    Northam has stuck to the strategy that works. He has crisscrossed the state for the better part of the past four years in his capacity as the number two Democrat elected in state government. He has stuck close to current Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is term-limited under Virginia's unique state law that forbids governors from seeking re-election.
    Northam is focusing on a very specific set of issues Democrats rely on, talking up his support for abortion rights, expanding access to health care and keeping the state budget balanced.
    "Voters in Virginia are looking a bit more at the comparative qualifications," said Sabato. "Northam has two terms in the (state) Senate, one term as lieutenant governor. He is essentially next in line."
    His solid campaign has helped him keep his support from the state's popular Democratic leaders rock solid. But while they continue to stick by his campaign, they are reluctant to criticize Perriello in any way.
    "Listen, Tom had every right to get into the race, and I haven't said a bad word, and I'd never say a bad word," said McAuliffe. "If Tom were the nominee the next day, I would be the first guy out there campaigning. What matters to me is getting a Democrat elected governor."
    And while Northam retains that support, Sabato argues a simple endorsement only goes so far.
    "They think they lend their names and that is worth thousands of votes," he said. "Actually it is worth the vote of their spouse, about half of the time."
    Free from the confines of the traditional campaign, Perriello has run an unconventional race, embracing the endorsement of liberal leaders from outside Virginia, holding a rally with Sanders, touting endorsements from former Clinton top aide John Podesta and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as well as raking in funding from sources outside the commonwealth.
    To date, Perriello has raised 51% of his more than $2 million in fundraising dollars from donors who do not live in the state. He has cashed big checks from figures like liberal activist George Soros and his family. All told, Perriello has raised more than $385,000 from people with the last name Soros. By comparison, 91% of Northam's more than $3 million in campaign cash comes from donors inside Virginia.
    "It's the kind of thing that just a few years ago in Virginia would've beaten a Democrat," said Sabato.
    Perriello is tapping into the angst over the Trump administration that is fueling Democratic enthusiasm in unprecedented ways. While he is not shying away from Virginia specific issues, he is also emphasizing topics like the battle over Obamacare (his campaign ad featuring an ambulance being crushed has reached viral status with more than 400,000 views on YouTube), the Trump administration's travel ban and the controversy over Russia's alleged meddling in the US election.
    "It is well beyond anything I have ever seen before," described Tribbett. "It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Democrats to create an organizational structure that we've never had."
    But Sabato warns that while Perriello's lurch to the left is what made his primary campaign viable, it could end up hurting his chances in the general election. Perriello's lack of state government experience and the fact that he has few contacts and connections in Richmond could be a drag on his campaign. However, despite Northam's obvious advantages in that department, his campaign has yet to seize on the issue in a tangible way that might expose Perriello's flaws.
    "Either the Northam campaign is legitimately confident because of their private polls or they overconfident and lethargic," said Sabato.
    Public polls show the race in a virtual tie, which means that the outcome of the June 13 primary will likely come down to turnout -- how many voters show up and exactly where they show up. If turnout is average, that could be an advantage for Northam. If turnout exceeds expectations that will likely indicate a surge of new voters -- people potentially energized by Perriello's underdog campaign.
    "Older voters and the traditional voters will participate no matter what," said Tribbett. "The new voters that come in that add to your electorate tend to be younger voters. They tend to be people participating in a primary for the first time and they would be more open to a challenger to the establishment."
    But at this point, most Virginia Democrats remain reluctant to pick a winner, demonstrating the unpredictable nature of the electorate especially barely seven months after Donald Trump's shocking presidential win.
    The winner of the Northam-Perriello fight will face the winner of what has at times been an animated fight between Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart, State Sen. Frank Wagner, and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who came very close to upsetting Warner in a 2014 senate fight and is the perceived favorite in the upcoming primary.