Virginia’s Democratic primary on Tuesday is shaping up to be the first real test of liberalism in the Trump era, with both candidates lurching for increasingly leftward policies to position themselves in contrast with President Donald Trump.
Lt. Gov Ralph Northam has used TV ads to call Trump a “narcissistic maniac.” Former Rep. Tom Perriello has proclaimed Trump is an “authoritarian.” Both candidates have taken decidedly liberal positions on abortion, guns, criminal justice and college tuition — while using Trump bashing as a foundation of their campaigns. While Northam has the support of the Democratic establishment throughout Virginia and Perriello brings a potent Bernie Sanders endorsement to the Tuesday primary, the simmering question for the winner is how this race to the left in the Democratic primary — which may appeal to Northern Virginia Democrats — will play across the rest of the state in the general election.
Virginia’s gubernatorial elections often develop into contrasts with a new president, but there’s a stark difference between now and how Republican candidate Bob McDonnell handled then-President Barack Obama in 2009. While critical of the Obama’s economic record, the future governor also regularly praised Obama for supporting school choice, straddling the partisan divide.
The Democrats have felt no need to do the same with the less popular Trump, whose approval rating was at 36 percent in a recent Washington Post-George Mason University poll of Virginia.
“Let’s prove that Donald Trump’s values are not Virginia values,” Perriello says in one of his closing television ads. Northam has arguably gone further, using his TV campaign to call Trump a “narcissistic maniac” — though Perriello answered Thursday with an ad of his own calling Trump "authoritarian," and invoking Virginia’s motto: "Sic Semper Tyrannis," a shortened version of a Latin phrase meaning "Thus always I bring death to tyrants." Perriello has also lined up Khizr Khan, who became famous for his Democratic National Convention speech invoking his son, who died in the Iraq War, and slamming Trump, to campaign with him on Monday, the day before the primary.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, the only Democratic member of Virginia’s congressional delegation to remain neutral in the primary — the others have all lined up behind Northam — said it’s unclear if voters will respond to Perriello’s vision of the governorship.
“Can Tom ride the anti-Trump wave, which is very strong here in Northern Virginia?” Connolly pondered in a recent phone interview. “Can he make the case that the governor’s office should be a platform for the resistance?”
Invoking the resistance comes more naturally to Perriello than it does to Northam. It was former staffers of Perriello’s who wrote the Indivisible guides, which have inspired dozens of local liberal-leaning groups that have poked and prodded their members of Congress on Trump’s Russia scandals and the GOP health care repeal plan.
Northam, by his own admittance, is less of a firebrand and more unassuming than Perriello. But he has dived headlong into the anti-Trump-themed primary, too, when he unveiled the “narcissistic maniac” attack on Trump in his stump speech and later in TV ads.
“We experienced in 2016 this campaign of Mr. Trump’s that was run of fear, bigotry, hatred and a lot of misinformation,” Northam said in an April interview. “In politics, you tend to react what’s going on around you. There’s been an awakening going on across Virginia, and I suspect across this country. I worry a lot about what’s going on in Washington.”
Northam, a pediatric neurologist, has defended the “narcissistic maniac” line as both politically effective and medically appropriate. When “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd pressed him on its use last week, Northam didn’t back down.
“There’s a lot of overlap between psychiatry and neurology, and I would invite the viewers to look up the criteria for narcissism,” he said, adding: “I think they’ll see some familiarity with what they’ll see.”
The results of the Republican primary have been in less doubt than the Democratic contest, but Trump has made waves in that race nonetheless.
Underdog candidate Corey Stewart, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman, has argued that front-runner Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, is less than sincere in his backing of the under-fire Republican.
Stewart (who was Trump’s Virginia campaign chair for much of 2016 but was fired in October) stands next to a smiling Trump in his closing TV ad, while a narrator declares: “Corey Stewart supports President Trump. Not Ed Gillespie.” In a debate outside of Richmond this spring, Stewart attacked Gillespie for criticizing Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes that showed Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women.
“Ed was among the first Republicans in the country to kick him when he was down,” Stewart said.
Gillespie responded by noting Trump himself apologized for the remarks. “Corey’s the only one who thinks they’re great comments,” he said.
Invoking Trump has not given Stewart much traction; last month’s Washington Post poll found Gillespie with a 20 percentage point lead in the primary. And a plurality also thought Gillespie was the strongest Trump supporter in the race.
Yet Trump’s brand of politics would seem an ill fit with what Gillespie has practiced as a political operative, 2014 Senate candidate and gubernatorial contender. Gillespie repeatedly pledges to be the governor of “all Virginians,” has released television ads in Spanish and Korean, and has mentioned his family’s immigrant roots in web videos. In his 2014 Senate campaign, Gillespie made extensive outreach to Northern Virginia Muslim communities.
Still, Gillespie has largely avoided breaking with Trump. While GOP governors in blue states like Maryland, Vermont and Massachusetts have criticized his handling of the travel ban or his decision to pull out of the Paris agreement on reducing carbon emissions, Gillespie has resisted putting distance between himself and the president.
After an event in Northern Virginia on Wednesday, Gillespie was asked why his campaign ads didn’t feature Trump the way his competitors did. His response was 45 seconds long, and he never said the president’s name, while every TV in the state features Northam and Perriello talking about Trump before the June 13 primary.