by J. Cannon
At a time when nothing in politics is normal, 2017 will not be a normal election year in Virginia. After a disastrous defeat that allowed the most egregiously unfit candidate in U.S. history to claim the White House, Democrats are desperate for electoral victories on all levels to check the power of President Trump. As was the case for recent elections in Montana and Georgia, the gubernatorial race in Virginia will attract an unusual level of attention from Virginia voters as well as progressives and media outlets nationwide.
While some might not welcome this outside attention, this election is an opportunity for Virginians to set the tone for how the country will respond to the Trump administration. The policy proposals and talking points in the race will revolve around statewide issues, but whoever the Democratic nominee is should be cognizant of the fact that this race is an important moment not just for Virginia, but for the nation. Throughout the primaries, Tom Perriello has shown he understands this dynamic, while Ralph Northam has consistently rejected it, recently saying that this race is “about Virginia, not the country.”
Since Perriello’s surprise entry into the race in January, he has persistently taken Trump to task for his hateful rhetoric, assaults on democratic norms, and attempts to pass off a tax cut for the wealthy as a health care plan. Northam has embraced the anti-Trump mood to a more limited extent. In March, the campaign rolled out a stock phrase to denounce Trump, calling him a “narcissistic maniac,” and Northam has been using it ever since. While this might be an accurate description of the erratic and self-centered president, it seems odd that, at a time when a new scandal seems to break by the hour, Northam’s denunciations of the administration are limited to a three-month old stock phrase and vague promises not to let Trump come anywhere close to Virginia (note: Donald Trump lives close to Virginia).
Northam’s defenders would likely contend that he’s keeping the focus on Virginia issues, and that’s certainly a legitimate point. Whoever becomes governor of Virginia will not have a chance to restore the Affordable Care Act if it’s repealed or cast a vote for Trump’s impeachment should he sink deeper into scandal.
However, these attempts to relegate Trump to a bit part in the political script seem a bit tone-deaf. Aside from the fact that the news is constantly dominated by Trump, the reality is that his policies will have a disproportionate impact on Virginia. Trump and his Republican allies are pushing budget cuts that could impact thousands of federal workers and contractors in Northern Virginia, as well as cuts to health care, environmental protection, and education that could have an outsized impact on southern Virginia. Furthermore, Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has energized and emboldened far-right activists, including the torch-bearing white supremacists who demonstrated in Charlottesville last month. These issues might originate at the federal level, but their consequences will be felt at the state level.
Should Northam win on Tuesday, there is little doubt that Perriello and his supporters would support him enthusiastically. He is an excellent public servant who has done great work for the commonwealth as a state senator and a lieutenant governor. However, it is hard to argue that his campaign has captured the energy of the moment or even acknowledged it. The campaign seems unaltered by today’s profoundly unsettling political dynamic or responsive to it in any meaningful way. Perriello’s anti-Trump rhetoric isn’t just political hay, it’s a statement of resistance to a corrupt and deeply unpopular president who is both the dominant figure in national politics and someone who could do significant harm to the state of Virginia. Perriello’s policy proposals revolve around Virginia, but he leaves no doubt that he is ready to confront the administration. Northam’s low-key campaign may have worked with Hillary Clinton in the White House, but it’s ill-suited to the Trump era.
Amidst all this political turmoil, is that there is a real chance to build something out the ashes of 2016, and Virginia could be the first step. Donald Trump, with his careening belligerence and hapless ignorance, is a dangerous but incompetent tribune of Republican ideology. The Democratic candidate for governor should be prepared to protect Virginians from the policies of this administration and play a leading role in opposing Trump’s broken vision for the country. This is a role that should be embraced by Virginia. The state is, after all, where the nation’s first settlers landed, where the first legislative assembly met, and the birthplace of the first president, the “father of the Constitution,” and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Virginia values are American values, and Democratic values are democratic values. The focus of the race of should always be on Virginia, but whoever the nominee, they should recognize that the whole country is watching, and the state should do them proud.