Sanders’ endorsement tests his clout but blindsides Democrats
Sen. Bernard Sanders endorsed a liberal former congressman in Virginia’s governor’s race Monday, marking the first major foray for Democrats’ 2016 upstart presidential candidate as he seeks to extend his political reach, testing his clout in one of the country’s newest blue states.
But Mr. Sanders’ decision to back Tom Perriello blindsided some prominent Democrats and fed the sense that the race is now a front in the battle between progressives, represented by Mr. Perriello and Mr. Sanders, and centrists, represented by Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
“We need progressive voices at the statewide level, and I think that Tom is that kind of progressive,” Mr. Sanders told The Washington Times on Tuesday. “I think we need to bring working people together to stand up against the Trump agenda, which is clearly a massive attack on working families, and I think Tom can provide that leadership.”
Asked whether he plans to campaign with Mr. Perriello, Mr. Sanders said, “If he thinks I can be helpful and my time allows I would be happy to campaign with him.”
Mr. Perriello blasted out a morning fundraising email touting the Sanders endorsement as proof that he is “drawing support from across the entire progressive movement” and followed that up with a news release announcing that they would appear together at a rally Thursday at George Mason University.
But Mr. Sanders’ decision to plant his flag in Virginia left some miffed.
“Loved the courtesy heads up,” Mr. Warner said, signaling the Sanders news caught him off guard.
Mr. Northam’s campaign objected to Mr. Sanders’ discounting the lieutenant governor as a progressive force.
“He has led the fight to ban smoking in restaurants, to prevent the transvaginal ultrasound mandate and to push for stronger gun safety legislation,” said David Turner, a Northam spokesman, adding that his boss is also focused on expanding Medicaid under Obamacare.
Mr. Warner said Mr. Northam should not be seen as an establishment candidate.
“I don’t think that is the case,” he said. “I think you have got in Ralph Northam somebody who has got a progressive record. I think Tom has brought a lot of energy to the race, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.”
Mr. Warner has endorsed Mr. Northam, as has Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Sen. Tim Kaine.
All of them were backers last year of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Mr. Kaine even served as her vice presidential nominee.
Mrs. Clinton won Virginia’s Democratic primary en route to defeating Mr. Sanders for the party’s presidential nod.
Virginia ended up voting for Mrs. Clinton in the general election as well, marking the third straight presidential election that the state has gone blue — a reversal from the previous five decades, when it was the most reliable Republican state in the nation.
In the aftermath of the election, though, Mr. Sanders has emerged as arguably the most popular elected Democrat in the country among the progressive activists who are driving the party’s agenda.
He has left the door open to running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and has pushed his party to tilt more to the left in Washington and in the states.
Mr. Sanders has not taken sides in special congressional elections playing out in Georgia, South Carolina and Montana, and also stayed out of Tuesday’s special election in California’s 34th Congressional District, where 24 candidates — including three who cast themselves as Sanders acolytes — were running for an empty seat.
A spokesman for Mr. Sanders said his boss doesn’t have any more endorsements lined up but that could change as the election cycle moves forward.
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said the race in Virginia is tailor-made for Mr. Sanders to get involved.
“While there is a lot of attention on the special congressional races, they are probably not set up as well as Virginia’s is in the sense that you have what in my mind is a pretty clear establishment Democrat and what is clear in my mind is progressive Democrat,” Mr. Kidd said.
He said Virginia is also likely to dominate political headlines from the June primaries to the November election, so Mr. Sanders is getting a good return on his investment of political capital.
The Wason Center for Public Policy released a poll last week that showed Mr. Perriello and Mr. Northam dead-even in the race. Both receive support from 26 percent of registered Virginia Democratic voters, with a whopping 45 percent of the respondents still up for grabs.
The survey also showed that Mr. Northam held a 9 percentage point lead among voters who supported Mrs. Clinton in the Virginia primary last year and Mr. Perriello held an 11 percentage point lead among Sanders voters.