Lessons from Virginia Primary: Trump Effect and the Limits of Bernie

Establishment Democrat crushes Sanders-backed opponent, GOP insurgent outperforms

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 14 Jun 2017 at 2:07 PM

Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary in Virginia made three things clear — the appetite for Bernie Bots is limited even among Democrats, Trumpism is alive and well, and President Donald Trump is inspiring epic levels of civic engagement.

The conventional wisdom heading into Tuesday’s voting was that the well-known and thoroughly Establishment Republican Ed Gillespie would easily dispatch his opponent in the GOP primary, while the Democrats were in for a long night as a battle royal played out between its left-wing and moderate factions.

The conventional wisdom was wrong on both counts.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam defeated liberal former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) by 12 percentage points. Those lines were blurred somewhat, as Perriello tried to make a populist appeal and Northam moved left and attacked the president on the campaign trail. Still, it was a poor showing for Perriello, who was ousted from his House seat west of Richmond in 2010 after a single term in Congress and had the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Like Sanders in his 2016 primary fight against Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, Perriello struggled in jurisdictions with high numbers of black voters. The results suggest that Sanders will have trouble transforming the Democratic Party, let along the country as a whole, into a Euro-style socialist paradise.

On the Republican side, political experts did not give Corey Stewart much of a chance. The Prince William County supervisor was the one-time state chair for Trump's 2016 presidential campaign in Virginia — but was relieved of that position after organizing an unauthorized protest outside the Republican National Committee in October. He also lost a primary bid for lieutenant governor four years ago.

Gillespie, meanwhile, is a veteran of Republican politics and an Establishment favorite. He served as a counselor to President George W. Bush and had stints heading up both the Virginia Republican Party and the Republican National Committee. In 2014, he came within a single percentage point of pulling off an upset of popular Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.

But Gillespie barely fended off Stewart, winning by a little more than 4,300 votes. He won the vote-rich areas in Northern Virginia and the Tidewater area, while Stewart racked up winning margins with in the southwestern part of the state. It roughly resembled the 2016 election map, with Stewart carrying the counties and cities where Trump won.

The Virginia races offered fresh evidence of a highly motivated electorate in the Trump era, particularly on the Democratic side. It comes as early voting for next week's special election in a Georgia congressional district has been strong, and a higher-than-expected number of voters turned out for a New Jersey Democratic primary even though the contest was not competitive.

More than 543,000 Democrats voted on Tuesday, breaking the record of 320,000 for the last competitive Virginia primary.

Political analysts closely watch the odd-year gubernatorial races in Virginia as a signal of where midterm elections might be headed in the following year.

Northam will enter the general election race as the decided favorite. He has the full backing of outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the entire Democratic Establishment and can take comfort in the fact that that turnout in the Democratic primary exceeded the Republican primary's by more than 176,000 votes.

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