With former Congressman Tom Perriello now formally in the race against current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam for the Democratic nomination to be the next Governor of Virginia, it’s worth taking the time to say something very important, especially before the competitive nature of electoral politics plays out within the party: both of these men are tremendous candidates, and Democrats should be thrilled that both have thrown their hats into the ring.
From the outset, I should note that I’m not someone who subscribes to the “all competition is good” philosophy when it comes to primaries. Some primaries do get nasty and end up subtracting from the ability of the eventual nominee to win in a general. You can easily imagine our current Governor Terry McAuliffe not winning in 2013 if he had a bruising and expensive primary challenge. And I certainly don’t expect anyone on Team Northam or the long list of elected officials who have already endorsed Ralph to applaud Perriello’s entry into the race.
But let’s be clear: no one is owed or should be considered “next in line” for any political office. Great candidates with compelling messages don’t spontaneously generate out of the ether: they need to be continuously honed and improved by taking their case to the voters. That only happens if our best and brightest step up to the plate. And in 2017, I think we’re getting the kind of primary that moves the party toward that ideal.
I mean, just take a moment to consider the resumes of these two candidates. Ralph Northam is as impressive as they come: a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, a long-practicing pediatric neurologist who served as a physician in the United States Army, and a genuinely thoughtful and down-to-earth individual. I don’t think I can name anyone in Virginia politics today who exudes more warmth and respect than Ralph Northam. He’s well-liked across the political spectrum, has done a tremendous job as Lieutenant Governor pushing Governor Terry McAuliffe’s priorities, and hails from a part of Virginia (Norfolk) Democrats need in order to keep winning statewide. Best of all, he’s won challenging races before, crushing the Republican nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 2013 by more than ten points. Some people will say he only won by that much because he was facing a lunatic, but then again, look at our current President-Elect. There are no givens in elections.
The case for Tom Perriello is very strong as well. To put it bluntly, Tom Perriello could be President one day. Already a legend here in the Charlottesville/Blue Ridge/Danville corridor, Perriello came to prominence by knocking out a powerful Republican incumbent and served as a staunch ally of President Obama’s in the House of Representatives. While by no means an out-and-out liberal, Perriello voted for the Affordable Care Act, for cap-and-trade, for the Recovery Act, and never tried to hide where he stood on the issues. He lost in 2010, but only by a few points, and has since been serving as an envoy to the African Great Lakes region. He has the work ethic of a horse and speaks passionately about our higher goals from government and public life. I know many Virginia Democrats who for years wondered aloud, “When will Tom run again?” He has a cache in Virginia politics few can muster and will generate enthusiasm at a time when Democrats (nationwide at least) have struggled to get their supporters to the polls.
This is a very, very good problem to have. Choosing between excellent candidates is what makes the party system work. If good people don’t stand up to run, it doesn’t really matter whether “the field is cleared” or not. God knows Democrats in 2016 could have really used a Joe Biden or an Elizabeth Warren in the race. I don’t know whether Hillary still would have won, but at least it would have come after exhausting the best possible candidates out there. Just imagine a world where Barack Obama decided back in 2007 to bide his time and wait to develop some experience before running for President. The time to run is always now.
Indeed, most times that primaries “backfire”, it’s usually the result of weak candidates, not from infighting. I don’t think the Hillary-Bernie primary helped the cause in the end, but that’s mostly because both candidates had serious shortcomings. I don’t need to rehash this debate, but the transitive property suggests to me that if Trump beat Hillary who beat Bernie, the problem may not have been with the bruising nature of the primaries, but rather the candidates, their organizations, and their messages.
More importantly, if there’s any presidential comparison, the apt one is 2008. Tom Perriello represents the kind of conviction-based, Obama-like progressive values that are likely to win over the activist and “next generation” of Democrats, whereas Ralph Northam represents the section of the party who want their leader to have put in their time, have built a resume, and have proven they can handle the job. From the outset at least, it’s the classic choice between experience and vision.
But the real benefit of a competitive primary is that we need desperately to figure out what strategies, messages, and personalities inspire Democratic-leaning voters. The past decade of elections when Barack Obama wasn’t on the ticket haven’t been kind in terms of Democratic turnout. Virginia has done better than most swing-states, with Democrats controlling all of the statewide offices from Congress to the statehouse. But we can’t make assumptions about what 2017 will look like. The world could look very different in ten months time.
In the end, the real risk facing Democrats isn’t a primary that drains resources and takes some of the shine off of our candidates. Republicans are going to have their own contentious primary as well. Rather, the risk is that we never put new visions and new ideas that motivate Democrats and Democratic leaners out into the marketplace. And with these two great candidates, I can easily see either one developing the message and the vision that will make sure Virginia doesn’t fall to the Republicans. They’re both very good at this.
Again, no one should expect puppies and lollipops in a race where millions of dollars will be spent. Campaigns tend to be very tough affairs. But running great candidates means that those fights are channeled to a productive end: figuring out which visions Democrats want to ratify at a time when Republican power nationwide is at its zenith.
Those are the stakes. The next Mark Warner or Tim Kaine or Barack Obama doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. They come from the crucible of competing political visions. I, for one, couldn’t be more excited for Virginia Democrats to be some of the first voters in America to start taking back our country, one vote at a time.