In the grand sweep of things, Tuesday night’s Democratic primary in Virginia was an enormous victory for the left. Former representative Tom Perriello came out of nowhere late in the process, staked out a starkly progressive agenda predicated on fighting inequality and racism, and racked up 41 percent of the vote. The winner, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, moved left throughout the primary and is likely the most progressive Democratic nominee in the history of Virginia.
Perriello’s run directly moved Northam to the left on several issues. When Perriello announced he was running on a $15 minimum wage, he was the the first candidate for statewide office ever to make that pledge—and Northam quickly became the second just one day later. Perriello made free community college a centerpiece of his campaign very early on, and Northam later came out with a free-community-college proposal for certain high-demand jobs.
When Northam went after Perriello, it was usually to ding the former congressman for being insufficiently progressive on both gun control and abortion rights. Northam wasn’t the preferred candidate of many activist left groups, but still stands in stark contrast to past Democratic nominees and governors. Consider that when now-Senator Tim Kaine won the governor’s mansion in 2005, he declared, “We proved that people are more interested in fiscal responsibility than ideological bickering,” and “that faith in God is a value for all and that we can all share regardless of our partisan labels.”
Progressive groups who backed Perriello are happy to declare victory and move on. “When Tom Perriello entered the race a few months ago, nobody expected a competitive race,” said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The reason this race became so competitive in a few short months is that voters are increasingly hungry for visionary progressives who believe in challenging power—from systemic racism to corporate control of our democracy and economy.”
But there are still some warning lights flashing for progressive Democrats who want to take on established Democrats and move the party left—unless, of course, they are happy with moral victories and not electoral wins.
Many commentators shooed away the idea that Perriello vs. Northam was a proxy battle for Sanders vs. Clinton. And it’s absolutely true this comparison suffers in many different respects. Perriello is not a Democratic Party outsider nor did he adopt the bulk of Sanders’s platform. Northam is a pretty poor avatar for Hillary Clinton, and indeed the voting patterns on Tuesday night did not overlay onto the results from last spring’s Democratic primary—Perriello did well in both Clinton’s best districts and also places where Sanders did best. Northam’s winning map didn’t look like Hillary’s.