It was 2016 all over again inside the packed gymnasium at George Mason University, even though Donald Trump was almost three months into his presidency. Throngs of college students chanted “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” and waved the old campaign signs. Right before the white-maned Vermont senator appeared, sending the crowd into an even deeper frenzy, Tom Perriello praised Sanders as someone “who is at the front lines of opposing Trump, but also opposing a narrow sense of what’s possible in our health-care system and in our economy today.”
When Virginia elects a new governor on November 7, it will be one of the first true tests of Republican fortunes in the Trump era. A blowout of likely GOP nominee Ed Gillespie in an important swing state could augur a big political shift, just as Tim Kaine’s election as governor in 2005 pointed to the 2006 Democratic wave, and Republican Bob McDonnell’s 2009 victory foreshadowed the Tea Party takeover in Washington the next year.
Democrats need a win, but just as important is how they get it—because the party is badly in need of a new identity. According to a recent Washington Post–ABC News poll, 67 percent of Americans believe that the Democratic Party is out of touch with their needs—more than feel the same way about Trump or the GOP. And the Democratic gubernatorial primary on June 13 offers voters two distinct choices, both in tone and in substance.
Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam is clearly the establishment’s choice, and it was generally assumed that he’d win the nomination without any opposition. Northam is backed by the current governor, Terry McAuliffe; both US senators from Virginia, Kaine and Mark Warner; and the state’s entire congressional delegation (save one member, who is staying neutral). He also enjoys the unanimous support of every Democratic member in both the State Senate and House.
Northam recently admitted that he voted for George W. Bush twice, before getting involved in politics. But ever since he first ran for the State Senate in 2007, he has accumulated a solid progressive record. He battled the tobacco industry, a powerful player in Virginia politics, and helped pass a statewide smoking ban in restaurants. He pushed a bill to legalize medical marijuana and now wants to decriminalize the possession of small amounts for recreational use. Northam also boasts a 100 percent pro-choice rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and an F from the National Rifle Association. If he wins, he would be among the most liberal governors ever elected in the Old Dominion.