Democratic Civil War Quietly Being Fought in Virginia

Top figures take sides in primary battle as party leaders claim national 'unity'

Rep. Tom Perriello
Rep. Tom Perriello / Getty Images

The Democratic National Committee is putting on a national "unity" tour, but the ideological battle lines in last year's presidential primary have reappeared in Virginia's race for governor.

The central figure of the DNC's unity tour is Bernie Sanders—the presidential candidate the DNC worked to defeat last year. Sanders is accompanying party chairman Tom Perez, the establishment figure who defeated Sanders's preferred candidate for the chairmanship this year.

The DNC still hasn’t received Sanders's coveted email list of 2016 supporters. Tom Perriello, who upended the Democratic establishment's plans in Virginia with his surprise decision to run for governor, was given access to the list last Friday when he was endorsed by Our Revolution, the activist group that grew out of Sanders's presidential campaign and is run by its former campaign manager Jeff Weaver.

Working to stave off Perriello are the same forces that worked against Sanders last year in Virginia.

The top in-state supporters of Ralph Northam—considered to be a lock for the Democratic nomination before Perriello's entrance into the race—are Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign chairman Gov. Terry McAuliffe and her 2016 campaign running-mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.). One of Northam's top surrogates is Paul Begala, who has served as a Clinton apparatchik since Bill Clinton's first run for president in 1992.

The two sides are trying to mask their differences by training their attacks on President Donald Trump.

Sanders had nothing negative to say about Northam during his appearance with Perriello earlier this month, instead slamming Trump as "bullier in chief" and celebrating Perriello as a conqueror of "right-wing economic theories."

Begala, in his Washington Post endorsement of Northam, mentioned Perriello just once—to celebrate him as an "impressive, intelligent, earnest" candidate. He argues that Northam can be "the anti-Trump."

Perriello's name has never appeared in fundraising emails from Northam's campaign. Northam's name only appears in emails from Perriello's campaign to note that primary polls are tightening, and nothing negative is ever said about the lieutenant governor.

Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia's Center of Politics, said Sanders is using Perriello in his fight to transform the party after the establishment's failure in 2016.

"I think Bernie is adopting Perriello more than Perriello wants to adopt Bernie," Sabato said.

"Bernie is determined to build a new Democratic party—if not around himself then certainly around his views—and he has the results of 2016 to prove that he may be on to something," Sabato said. "Bernie has an opening [in Virginia] because of Clinton's failure."

Sabato, who resides in the district that Perriello represented for two years, said that Perriello doesn’t quite fit the mold of a Sanders candidate. He could, however, be able to refashion his image thanks to his lack of political experience.

"Perriello is re-creating himself as a part of this new wave, but that wasn't what he was in 2008," Sabato said. "He's changed a lot of positions since then."

"Perriello is obviously more than willing to present himself as whatever he needs to be at any given gathering," he said. "He has that ability because he hasn’t been around for too long."

Sabato said Northam is a different candidate than Clinton. "He is a lot more genuine," according to Sabato, who went on to suggest he has the support of Clinton's inner circle because of its connections to the Democratic establishment.

"I think it's more about loyalty—Begala is loyal to McAuliffe and McAuliffe is loyal to Northam, it just so happens that they were all for Clinton because they're party people. Perriello and Sanders aren't."