Democrat Tom Perriello, a former House Representative, made a somewhat unwelcome disruption to the Virginia gubernatorial race when he announced his entry. It was widely presumed that his party opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, had the nomination in the bag. The breaking New York Times report stated “leading Democrats have sought to clear the field for Mr. Northam, hoping to give him a head start in fundraising and organization…”
Clearing the field. It’s a pesky term that popped up several times during the 2016 presidential election to describe the diligence Democrats had to nominate Hillary Clinton and help pave her road to the White House. It’s a term that’s also describes why Democrats should get comfortable losing races.
Back in February 2014, when Clinton was an early frontrunner for the nomination, a CBS poll stated that Democrats wanted to see a primary with other Democratic competitors. Although Clinton relished in high approval ratings within her party, Democrats favored a healthy primary where she could face strong challengers. Despite this, the party elite sought to push forward their most qualified candidate, and the Democrats of the National Governors Association unambiguously supported the idea of clearing the field for her.
While looking back on old articles that speculated on Clinton’s possible run for the White House, this writer was taken aback at how much the conversation on the 2016 Democratic race has changed. In a Politico article from 2013, then Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe said: “Should [Clinton] choose to run, she is somebody we could all get behind.” Vermont Governor Peter Shrumlin added: “If Hillary runs, you’re going to see fewer candidates. If Hillary does not run, you’re going to see more candidates.”
Little did these Democrats know that Clinton’s chances were besieged by a populist and self-described socialist, fueling a progressive movement by voters who were not “all behind” Clinton. She survived, but not unscathed. When the general election came around, Bernie Sanders supporters could have decisively helped her in key places. Had Democrats been able to more deftly gauge the political – populist– climate of 2016, they wouldn’t have trusted their confidence so blindly with her.
In one of his last interviews, President Barack Obama told ABC News that he and his administration began to live in a “bubble” as the years of his presidency went on. Because they were “not on the ground” and constantly in focus with everyday Americans, Obama did not see Trump’s victory coming. He wasn’t able to effectively determine that the political mood among voters wanted an outsider.
How can Democrats avoid this sort of parochialism in the future, and how is this problem relevant now? If we hark back to the Virginia gubernatorial race, we can already see history trying to repeat itself. Northam, who is seen as more moderate, already has the backing of Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, along with Governor Terry McAuliffe. Perriello, who is thought to be more progressive, is the underdog.
Northam, long thought to be the shoo-in nominee before Perriello dropped by, has been fundraising since June 2016, and his endorsers have chosen to remain loyal.
First, Democrats should stop creating a narrative that one particular candidate has a decisive advantage. Any eligible Democrat for a given race should feel encouraged by the party to run. Take a note from the Republican Party, who is running three candidates – the more candidates, the merrier. With the Virginia gubernatorial race, we instead find that all major endorsements were given to the sole candidate before Perriello had a chance to win them over. There’s a sort of hapless logic that if one side has a strong candidate and the other party has multiple, then the latter will tear themselves to bits while the former will be polished for the general election. The 2016 presidential race should be testament to the contrary.
Second, the best way to measure how a party nominee will hold up in a general election is to hold primaries where party elites do not have massive influence. The unfavorable candidate should not be pressured to leave. Let the voters do that. Instead, in this case, “senior Democrats hoped to persuade Perriello to stay out of the race,” as The Washington Post reported.
State Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw said that Perriello has “a better chance of flapping his wings and flying to the moon than getting within 50 points of that nomination.” Is that the sound of an open and healthy political party practicing democracy?
It may feel like déjà vu when comparing this race to the 2016 Democratic primary, but in reality, Perriello is not the homologous counterpart to Sanders. His voting record can prove to be a liability in the task of courting progressives. His platform in the past seemed to lean significantly more to the middle than Northam’s. As a Congressman, Perriello opposed the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban and voted for the Stupak amendment, which would have prohibited the ACA to fund abortions. Yet, soon after announcing his candidacy, he has reversed himself. On a radio show, Perriello called the NRA “a nut-job extremist organization,” and he claimed he’s called them that before. In fact, he previously had an A rating from the NRA when he attempted reelection in 2010.
Nonetheless, Perriello is positioning himself as the champion for the everyman and the trampled-upon, the foolproof image that won last year’s election. He can distance himself from the Virginia political class since he spent a significant amount of time outside of electoral politics as a special envoy, an Obama appointment. His campaign announcement on his Facebook page blamed the problems of the working class on “DC lobbyists” and gerrymandering. His rhetoric is not of Sanders-type persuasion, but it could work if given the chance.
He’s strategically mounted his progressive image in align with recent events. While Northam was busy with a commitment in Petersburg, Virginia, Perriello appeared at the Dulles airport protest to decry President Donald Trump’s executive order. A day later, he joined protesters in front of the White House. Additionally, Perriello is also a close ally of Obama, who campaigned for his House district race. Perriello, in turn, was a loyal supporter of Obama’s legislative endeavors. In all, he has establishment credentials and a populist image. It may work to win the election, but Democrats won’t know for sure unless they let democracy run its course.