Virginia’s Gubernatorial Primary Should Terrify The GOP

Strong candidates. Huge Democratic turnout. A sign of things to come?
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Virginia Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, celebrate Northam’s win in the Democratic Gubernatorial primary, in Crystal City, Va. — Tuesday, June 13, 2017 (AP/Cliff Owen)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Virginia Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, celebrate Northam’s win in the Democratic Gubernatorial primary, in Crystal City, Va. — Tuesday, June 13, 2017 (AP/Cliff Owen)

The last eight years have been mostly empty of victories for Democratic politicians not named Obama. House and Senate seats, one after another, have been lost to the Republicans in election after election since 2010. One of the few bright spots for Democrats on the national stage has been Virginia.

Democrats do not control Virginia, far from it. In fact Virginia has been a viciously contested state for years now with the Governorship and State Senate bouncing back and forth from party to party. Virginia also voted staunchly Republican in every presidential election from 1968 until 2008 where it has voted Democrat since. With much of its population densely packed into the urban northeast while the rest sprawls out across the far more rural south and west, Virginia mirrors many of the demographic and geographic features of the country as a whole.

These factors combine to make Virginia one of the worst places for primary challenges for Democrats. Facing a primary challenge in a closely contested race forces candidates to spend money and other resources desperately needed to help win the main event. Just as bad, primaries bring up scandal and dirt leaving the winning candidate to limp into the general election already half defeated. Worst perhaps, primaries can back candidates into an ideological corner because they are forced to appeal to small but vocal sections of the electorate and then defend these unpopular opinions during the later general election.

Democrats these days are not big fans of primaries: resentment, pain, and strife still linger over the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Added to this pot are the feelings of rage and powerlessness often inspired by the current Republican government that often manifest as infighting between sections of the Democratic party. Elections need to be won to protect the people and policies sacred to Democrats and primaries are the last thing candidates can afford, especially in a place as important and uncertain as Virginia.

There are no federal elections in 2017. For those wishing to gauge political sentiment it will be state elections they turn to and Virginia, while not the only state to have elections, is seen by many to be the test for what policies and politicians the electorate desires. Of all the local elections it will be the statewide ones that serve as the best data points and in Virginia the election to watch is the governors race and its primaries.

Virginia Governor Primary

Virginia held its primary for the gubernatorial race on Tuesday and both parties’ slots were contested unlike in 2013. At the end of the night current Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam took the Democratic nomination while Ed Gillespie narrowly claimed the Republican. Northam was clearly the establishment candidate receiving the endorsement of almost all serving Virginia Democrats while Tom Perriello drew support and the blessing of Independent darling Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Do not be confused however, at least in Virginia Democrats in 2017 look nothing like 2016. In a dominant showing Northram clinched the nomination with 304,000 votes, about 50,000 less than the 360,000 cast in the entire Republican gubernatorial primary.

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There are times when competition brings out the worst in people as the parties involved attempt to shred apart and tear down each other. However competition can also push both sides to excel, raising the level of political discourse and candidates. Both Democratic candidates followed up the primary with immediate calls for unity with Northam saying that he had spoken with Perriello and

“We agreed that we’re going to bring all Democrats under the tent starting tonight. This is too important an election. This is the bellwether of the country.”

Choices on the Democratic side were both qualified and well-liked leaving several northern Virginia residents we talked to unsure of which Democratic candidate they would vote for until they walked into the booths. The Washington Post found similar attitudes among those they talked to:

Many Democrats said they would have been satisfied with either Northam or the man he defeated, former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, as nominee for governor.

A rich choice of candidates and significant enthusiasm from voters are some very positive early steps as Democrats look forwards to 2017 in Virginia and beyond to the 2018 midterms.

A different story was told on the Republican side of the primary. Ed Gillespie, the establishment choice, managed to eek out a 4,500 vote win over Corey Stewart who ran on a platform of a Trump acolyte. Stewart relentlessly mocked Gillespie as “Establishment Ed” during the primary. At a dinner where he and his staff discussed a recount, Stewart told his supporters

“There is one word you will never hear from me, and that’s ‘unity.’ We’ve been backing down too long. We’ve been backing down too long in defense of our culture, and our heritage and our country.”

Stewart has be a long time critic of the removal of Confederate monuments among other issue that he ran on. Unity and enthusiasm were the two highlights of the primary for the Democrats which were noticeably lacking from the Republican side leaving Gillespie with a long road to the governor’s seat as he has to court both his own party’s voters as well as independents.

Virginia has a long political history and has never been much of a place Democratic policies expected to find success (post 1960). Democrats, however, managed to win Virginia in their 3rd straight presidential election and are on track for a strong showing in 2017. Democrats have long been critical of “trickle-down economics” but are slowly moving to an understanding of how “trickle-down politics” has similar weaknesses. You cannot just win the Presidency or the Senate and expect their policies to be implemented, they must build from the local level up. Primaries are an essential part of allowing many voices to participate in the process and practice building unity is a skill our politics desperately needs. Seen this way primaries are building blocks of the broader coalition that Democrats hope to lead them to victory in the 2018 and beyond and Virginia has started the journey off on the right foot.

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