Former Rep. Tom Perriello’s resistance-themed campaign for Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination is picking up steam, with recent polling showing him in a dead heat with the party establishment’s pick, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
In a Christopher Newport University Wason Center poll released Tuesday, Perriello and Northam were tied at 26 percent, with 45 percent still undecided.
A Feb. 2 Christopher Newport poll show Northam leading Perriello 26 percent to 15 percent with 59 percent undecided.
Wason Center director Quentin Kidd said the Democratic primary “looks to be a replay in some respects of last year’s presidential primary.”
In that contest, Hillary Clinton defeated Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 64 percent to 35 percent.
Perriello’s rise comes as President Donald Trump’s approval rating in Virginia continues to fall.
The CNU poll found only 37 of Virginia voters approve of Trump’s job performance. Trump won 45 percent of the vote against Clinton, who won the state with just a tick under 50 percent.
Perriello has attempted to capitalize on Democrats’ lingering resentment of Trump’s November win over Clinton.
On his campaign website, Perriello said that as governor he would make Virginia “a firewall against hate, corruption and an assault on the Virginia values of decency and progress. “
His campaign has made a number of high-profile appearances to reinforce that message, including appearing alongside protesters at Dulles International Airport in the wake of the president’s January executive order temporarily barring immigrants from seven (later amended to six) Muslim-majority nations.
He has also made some anti-Trump statements that drew fire from both sides of the aisle.
In a campaign appearance in mid-February, Perriello said Trump’s win was, “a little bit, you know, like a political and constitutional Sept. 11 for us.”
Northam said Perriello’s remarks were “awful and offensive.” Perriello later apologized on Twitter, saying he “won’t do it again.”
In response to Perriello’s decision to run against Northam, rather than for his former 5th District congressional seat, currently held by Republican Tom Garrett, Perriello has questioned the strategy of Democrats closing ranks behind Northam long before they knew the outcome of the Clinton-Trump race.
“The establishment made a big mistake,” Perriello said at a March 23 event in Charlottesville.
“Why, when you look at the three election cycles, anyone would think that the smart thing to do is to decide a year ahead of time, when you don’t even know what the political landscape is that a group of all-male party leaders are going to get together and decide who the nominee should be, you haven’t been paying attention,” Perriello said.
Democratic strategist and former state party chairman Paul Goldman said Perriello’s pitch to voters is “odd.”
“It’s perfectly logical that the Democratic establishment would get behind the lieutenant governor that early,” Goldman said.
“It’s a unity thing,” Goldman said. “The only surprise would be if they hadn’t done it.”
Goldman said that while Northam is not “super well-known,” he remains the favorite in the June primary.
“He has the benefit of the doubt among Democrats,” Goldman said. “The challenger has to take that away, and put chinks in Northam’s armor.”
“No one is going to able to credibly say that Ralph Northam hasn’t been sufficiently anti-Trump,” Goldman said.
“But to win a primary, a candidate needs a positive message, be willing to take action, and be in your face about it.”
In response to the Christopher Newport polling data, the Northam campaign released an internal poll from late February showing him leading Perriello 38 percent to 19 percent, with 43 percent undecided.
The high number of undecideds in all the polls indicate voters have not begun to focus on the race.
Perriello, however, believes his message has taken hold, making him not just a credible candidate, but a potential winner.
In his March 23 Charlottesville speech, Perriello said his campaign “obviously scared the Northam campaign,” and “it’s scared the bejeezus out of the Ed Gillespie campaign.”
“And I’m OK with that.”
Norman Leahy is a Virginia-based political reporter and columnist. Twitter: @norm_leahy