TOM PERRIELLO AS BERNIE SANDERS
The best argument for the argument that the 2017 Democratic primary for Virginia governor is a carbon copy of the 2016 Democratic primary for president may well be the well-crafted announcement video that Perriello released on the launch of his campaign:
“The American dream started right here in Virginia, but our faith in it has been shaken. Politicians from Washington to Richmond write their own self-serving rules, and seem committed to dividing and distracting us while they rig the system against the middle class.”
Hmm. That theme sounds, dare I say, oddly familiar. If the words “rig the system” were your drinking game in 2016, you probably did not survive the year. But that theme has clearly returned in Perriello’s campaign. In itself, that’s hardly surprising. Perriello was elected to Congress in 2008 in what could be easily described as an insurgent campaign against veteran Republican Rep. Virgil Goode. While in office, he had a record that could best be described as iconoclastic (more on this in a bit).
He is a natural fit for the “outsider” role, which sets Perriello up well to run an insurgent, anti-establishment campaign for fovernor. After all, his Democratic rival enjoys the endorsement of the three top elected officials in the state: Gov, Terry McAuliffe, plus Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. All three have indicated that they remain committed to Northam. What’s more, should Perriello best Northam, the man he would likely face in the general election is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie. And you can’t get much more establishment than that.
In sum, this means that Perriello is well positioned, given his rivals for the office, to run a “Sanders-esque” campaign for governor. After all, given his past political track record, precisely no one would ever declare Tom Perriello to be an “establishment” Democrat.
Which brings us to a rather unexpected point, actually.
TOM PERRIELLO AS JOE DONNELLY
This one will raise eyebrows (and quite possibly more than a bit of anger among Perriello fans), but the comparison is not without merit.
If you had put money on Perriello being more conservative in the House, according to the widely respected DW-Nominate, than guys like John Barrow, Brad Ellsworth, and Joe Donnelly—now a senator from Indiana—you could’ve cleaned out a lot of folks. Perriello, from his initial election in 2008, was viewed in many corners as a progressive hero. He cemented that status, for sure, by voting for Obamacare in 2010, despite the prospects of the vote being fatal in his Charlottesville-based district, which included a large swath of rural territory for which support for anything Obama related would be anathema. (Perriello, it must be noted, ran ahead of Obama in the 5th district in his 2008 victory, and even in his narrow 2010 defeat.)
Not only did Perriello vote for Obamacare, he didn’t shrink from his decision, which only earned him more plaudits from the political left-of-center.
That high-profile vote, however, was accompanied by a voting record on other matters that had pockets of conservatism. It would be inaccurate to say that Perriello was uniformly “conservative” as a Democrat. But to call his record mixed would be absolutely fair. Taken as a whole, Perriello scored almost in the median of the entire House in terms of his voting record, according to the National Journal. Plus (and this would seem almost unthinkable just six short years later), Perriello sided with gun-owners rights enough to earn the endorsement of the NRA in his re-election bid against Republican Rob Hurt.
So, does this mean that Perriello would wind up campaigning (or governing) as a centrist? Actually, there is a good reason to believe that he would not. There is actually a third recent exemplar that might fit him well. And it speak well to the notion of Perriello governing statewide in a manner considerably more progressive than his overall voting record in the House might indicate.
TOM PERRIELLO AS KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND
When Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate to replace Hillary Clinton (who had been appointed by Barack Obama to serve as secretary of state), there were no shortage of rumblings in progressive circles. Aside from some intangibles that caused friction (she had only begun her political career in 2006 with an upset win over embattled Republican John Sweeney, and she was an upstate Democrat in a state where the epicenter of power for the blue team is in New York City), her comparably conservative voting record in her sole term in the House generated some heat. Gillibrand’s ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) rating for the term was the lowest among the Democrats in the New York delegation, and actually within shouting distance of a handful of Republicans in the House.
For a lot of progressives, the fear was that a seat that could’ve easily gone (via appointment) to an established progressive went to a relatively conservative neophyte to Congress.
In the seven years since, Gillibrand has established herself firmly on the leftward side of the Senate. Indeed, among returning members of the Senate, Gillibrand ranks sixth among the most progressive members of the Senate, according to Progressive Punch. That puts her ahead of such beloved luminaries in the progressive universe as Senators Jeff Merkley, Al Franken and … wait for it … Bernie Sanders.
So, how did someone whose House voting record (according to DW-Nominate) put her to the right of the median Democrat in her two years there become someone whose Senate voting record puts her firmly in the most stalwart liberals of the Democratic caucus? The answer, almost certainly, lies in the realm of representative politics.
Gillibrand won an upstate district in an upset in a very good Democratic year (2006), and then held it easily in 2008 when she was blessed with weak GOP opposition and another good Democratic year. But, absent knowing that 2008 was going to tilt so heavily in her favor, you can easily argue that she voted with an eye on her very temperamental district. When she was appointed to represent a deep-blue state, however, she went from serving a swingy, right-leaning electorate to a very Democratic one—hence her shift to the left.
In his single term in the House, Perriello did the same thing. Even better (at least from a progressive perspective), it looks like Perriello was more willing than Gillibrand to defy the political winds in his district in the name of his convictions. The record at-large tells us that while he cast plenty of conservative votes, he also stuck his neck out in the name of progressive ideals.
And unlike other embattled Democrats during that tumultuous 2010 campaign, he did so knowing that a pretty strong headwind was forming. That speaks to real political courage, which means that he may govern statewide (in a state where, in a relative rarity, Hillary Clinton actually won with a margin wider than that enjoyed by Barack Obama in 2012) as his campaign announcement Thursday suggested—a left-of-center populist.
If nothing else, a Perriello candidacy (and administration, should it come to that) will be a fascinating thing to observe.
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