The candidate to watch in Virginia

Poll: 67% believe Democrats are out of touch
Poll: 67% believe Democrats are out of touch

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Poll: 67% believe Democrats are out of touch 01:48

Story highlights

  • Bakari Sellers: If Democrats want to start winning, they should take a lesson from Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello
  • Instead of giving an exclusively economic message, he is addressing issues of identity politics and social justice as well

Bakari Sellers is a former Democratic member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and a CNN commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Who are we? Who is our target demographic? And what do stand for? These are just a few of the questions Democrats have been attempting to answer since November 8, 2016.

And still, after months of reflection, the Democratic Party has made only modest progress in this enduring search for self. However, if we are serious about finding answers to these questions, we must start with our narrative.
Bakari Sellerrs
There is an ill-fated belief trending among party leaders that one overarching message will encompass the infinite number of unique experiences across the country. But the idea that we can promote one message to appeal to the white working class, inspire people of color to vote and urge the growing progressive wing to mobilize is simply baffling.
    Politics is about people. And while it is critical for Democrats to address the economic anxieties of all Americans, we must speak to people in a way that truly resonates and hits home. To do this effectively, Democrats cannot simply shift to an exclusively economic message, abandoning identity politics and social justice causes.
    In other words, Democrats must create a multipronged platform that speaks to the financial fears of white voters and the social fears of people of color.
    And if Democrats need an example of how to effectively speak to all the fears of voters, they need look no further than the gubernatorial Democratic primary taking place in the battleground state of Virginia.
    A CNN article referred to this June 13 election as "Virginia Democrats face first battle in war for party's soul." And, indeed, many have turned this race between Rep. Tom Perriello and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam into the rematch of Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton.
    There is the false narrative emerging that Perriello, who has scored the endorsements of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, is viewed as representing the progressive wing of the party. In contrast, Northam, a former two-term senator, who has the endorsements of many traditional Virginia Democrats, including Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, is viewed to represent the more establishment wing of the party.
    The Democratic Party cannot and should not be summarized as establishment versus progressives. And, more importantly, it cannot win with that kind of rivalry.
    For example, there are many Clinton supporters who appreciate both candidates for their progressive stances, but are still supporting Perriello because they are drawn to his authentic social justice message, one that's rooted in understanding the plight of voters of color coupled with tangible policy goals.
    This message of social justice is even more expansive and thorough than that of his endorsers Sanders and Warren. Even during Sanders' recent speech at the People's Summit, he was rightly heavy on economic populism and disappointingly scant of civil rights and social justice.
    While many continue to pay lip service to the faithful party base, Perriello has created a campaign that moves beyond the rhetoric and is truly responsive to communities of color that are still hurting.
    Simply put, Perriello gets it. He understands the blueprint for crafting a message that speaks to disaffected white voters, while also giving voters of color a full-throated reason to come out and vote for his campaign.
    Democrats clearly made mistakes in 2016; we cannot win by simply ignoring rural America. The frustration from white working-class voters is palpable and just. Our government has failed them, too. However, African-American voters, especially in the South, understand that they do not have the luxury to choose between economic justice and racial justice. These issues must be coupled together. One without the other is useless.
    Perriello has not only called for a "Commission on Racial Healing and Transformation," but he's gone even further: "We have to call out racism structural and overt where we see it, and we have to continue to address the issues of deep racial inequality we have here in Virginia, where the median net worth of an African-American family remains 1/11th that of a median white family in Virginia. We must deal with the structural barriers and have these conversations even when they're uncomfortable."
    This sentiment does not just apply to Virginia, though. It is a microcosm of the plight of black voters across the country. The days of just making Sunday morning church visits and meeting with the so-called leaders of the black community are over. Candidates are now also compelled to give policy-rich objectives and embrace identity politics.
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    Traditional methods take black voters for granted, and the result is depressed turnout. In 2012, the Census Bureau said black voters for the first time voted at a higher share than non-Hispanic whites. Contrast that to 2016 black voter turnout, when turnout was down across the board, including swing states like Virginia. If black turnout in these states reached 2012 levels, the result might have been President Clinton and not President Trump.
    Self-reflection and growth is hard, and it takes time. However, for the sake of the party we must all evolve. And as we move forward, I strongly encourage party leaders to take some notes from Perriello's playbook.