The Virginia Democratic primary could finally help end the “Hillary or Bernie?” debate

Pressing the flesh.
Pressing the flesh.
Image: AP Photo/Steve Helber
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Democrats in Virginia go to the polls today to choose their nominee for governor, but their choice may also help settle simmering tensions in the party that are distracting from its attempts to resist US president Donald Trump’s agenda.

Namely: the constant re-litigation of the Democratic presidential primary in 2016 between former secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senator Bernie Sanders. Party stalwarts arguing over the lessons of the election—did they lose to Trump because of the messenger, the message, or the Russians?—use the candidates’ names as shorthand for whether their party must stay the course (“Hillary”) or turn to the left (“Bernie”).

That division is too simplistic to either explain the election results or plot a course to future victory for the Democrats. But it needs resolving. Some Democrats are musing that Sanders will inevitably run again in 2020, when he will be 79. Tom Perriello, a former congressman running for governor in Virginia, embodies the idea that “Hillary or Bernie” is a false choice, and if he wins it could signal that the broader party is on the way to accepting that idea too.

Perriello is challenging the state’s lieutenant-governor, Ralph Northam, in the primary. Northam was expected to cruise in as the party’s only choice, but after Trump’s election, Perriello threw his hat into the ring, arguing that bolder leadership was needed to be push back against Trump-style politics.

His plain-spoken style embraces the blunt rhetoric that animated Sanders’ base. He makes no bones about calling out Trump (he ran “the most viciously racist campaign of my lifetime”) or the economic system.

“The same people who got globalization wrong 25 years ago are being equally rosy about automation today,” Perriello told Quartz in February while discussing his approach to automation, immigration and trade. “Twenty-five years ago, elites in both parties underestimated the scale of the costs and disruption of globalization.”

Hailing from rural Virginia, he has the bona fides to talk about the white working class, and he has made a key issue his opposition to a pipeline proposed by the state’s electrical utility there. But he is also outspoken on racial justice, and is a former diplomat who traveled the world working for the State Department.

Perriello also bridges the gaps in the party. While HuffPo, for example, calls the contest a “crucial test for the party’s progressive wing,” it doesn’t mention that he has won endorsements not only from senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the leading figures in the party’s left wing, but also from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and policy adviser Neera Tanden, who are not exactly seen as stalwarts by Sanders fans.

If Perriello is injecting national politics into the race, Northam, a physician, represents a local voice. A long-time player in state politics, he is backed by the state party’s elite, including sitting governor Terry McAuliffe and senator Tim Kaine. Northam supports the pipeline project and is seen as more moderate—he voted for George W. Bush for president, twice.

At this point, the race is seen as a toss-up. The difficulty in doing accurate polls in an off-year primary (when turnouts are typically low) is magnified by the roiling political moment. A recent Washington Post poll showed Perriello just barely leading and many undecided voters still making up their minds.

Virginia Democrats, a key chunk of the electorate, will pick one of these candidates as a standard-bearer. Should Northam win, it may signal that many voters are still focused on local issues and not as animated by the national battles captivating political observers. A Perriello triumph, however, could signal the evolution of the party and the potency of a national message—and that backers of both Sanders and Clinton have found at least one candidate to agree on.