Polls have closed in Virginia, where voters are choosing between two stridently anti-Trump Democratic candidates for governor tonight, with the winner looking to take serious momentum into an election that has historically been a referendum on the president.
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Rep. Tom Perriello both pushed a much more liberal agenda than Virginia Democrats have in recent history, believing that the party’s base is activated and wants their governor to fight President Donald Trump every step of the way. Northam has been preparing for this primary for years and has the backing of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, both Democratic senators from Virginia, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and most of Virginia’s other high-profile Democrats. But Perriello jumped into the race late with a message squarely focused on resisting Trump, and his supporters hope that a surge in primary turnout will boost Perriello above his more established rival.
On the Republican side, things have been quieter, as Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, is favored for the GOP nomination over underdog Prince William County supervisor Corey Stewart, who was very active in Trump’s campaign in Virginia.
Approximately 320,000 votes were cast in Virginia’s last competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary, in 2009. Perriello backers think turnout above a half-million voters could bring victory. Absentee ballot requests for the primary have increased this year, but they comprise a relatively small share of the vote in Virginia. It is unclear if that will translate into much higher turnout Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Northam has not left the Trump-bashing to Perriello, who filmed one of his ads in front of an ambulance getting crushed, saying that it represented what Republicans wanted to do to health care.
Northam has regularly called Trump a “narcissistic maniac” in his TV ads — which Northam, a pediatric neurologist, has insisted is his medical diagnosis.
The primary is one of Democrats’ first major intra-party contests of the Trump era, and it could be an indication of what the party base most prizes in candidates these days. “Tom’s victory will be a signal across this country,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Perriello supporter, in one of Perriello’s final ads.
But the candidates have each tried to soften their differences, with Northam adopting a more strident anti-Trump tone and Perriello relying on big-name validators like Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and — in a video shot in 2010 — former President Barack Obama, who has not endorsed in the race. Obama rallied for Perriello’s House reelection campaign just before the 2010 midterm election, which he narrowly lost.
Northam has also spent almost twice as much money on TV ads as Perriello, whose late-starting campaign relied more on big donors like financiers George Soros and Donald Sussman for funding.
A number of former staffers for Obama and Hillary Clinton have also backed Perriello, including Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman, John Podesta.
While Northam and Perriello have fought for the Democratic nomination, the GOP primary has been lower-key. That’s not for lack of trying by Stewart, who has loudly protested the removal of Confederate monuments and focused other hot-button issues like abortion. He has accused Gillespie of not being a strong enough supporter of Trump, though Stewart’s own credentials are mixed: He was fired from the Trump campaign for protesting in front of the RNC at the end of the campaign.
But Stewart has never had the resources or name-identification enjoyed by Gillespie, who barely lost a 2014 Senate run against Warner. And Gillespie has used the primary to focus on issues salient to the general election, including his tax plan.
Republicans may face presidential-level headwinds in the general election, though. Trump’s approval ratings have been in the 30s in Virginia for months, and he lost the state to Clinton in 2016 even while winning the presidency.