Perriello seems to believe that his version of populism will prove unifying. “We have seen zero economic growth in a lot of rural America, and we’ve seen a pro-monopolization policy that’s crushing their economies,” he said during the interview. “A lot of that has come from Republican policies, but you haven’t seen either party addressing it. That’s whey I think we’ve cracked this code a little bit of being able to both get our coalition excited and get rural communities excited.”
His campaign has taken pains to emphasize its support from key allies of Clinton and former President Obama even in touting its endorsement from Sanders. It’s an approach to tackling the intra-party battle lines that prompted The Daily Beast to ask recently: “Can He Bridge the Bernie-Hillary Divide?”
When I asked Perriello if he sees himself as a figure who can fuse the Clinton and Sanders wings of the party, he was careful to praise virtually every prominent party leader. “Warren and Sanders have really tapped into an understanding of how corrupt and unequal the system has become,” said Perriello. “Hillary Clinton, I think, was just an unbelievable executive manager at the State Department, where I worked, and never got enough credit for that as well as the creativity of her policy ideas, and then Obama has this ability to keep us focused on the aspirational and our common humanity that I struggle with sometimes when we’re so divided. There’s a lot to draw on from the leaders that have been there.”
The Northam campaign is trying to strike a careful, but somewhat different, balance. Fliers for Northam at his campaign rally billed him as a “progressive champion,” a message that appears tailored to liberal voters while his campaign website talks up a track record of breaking “gridlock” and working to achieve “bipartisan support,” in an apparent bid to reach out to moderate voters. As Northam put it to reporters at the rally: “I’ve fought for progressive Democratic values, and I have the experience to know how to get things done, and the relationships to get them done.”
His platform blends progressive policy with outreach to the rural voters but lacks the critique of corporate America delivered by his competitor. In February, Northam put forward a policy that would allow students to attend community college for free in exchange for a year of public service. On his campaign website, he vows to work for “teacher pay raises and fair funding for rural public schools” and promises that “rural Virginia will be first on his mind and in his heart” as he works to expand access to jobs.
Complicating the pitch that both Perriello and Northam have made is the fact that they have had to explain a track record that to some degree runs counter to the liberal image they have tried to put forward.
When he announced his campaign in January, Perriello expressed regret for a vote he took in Congress for an amendment that would have blocked federal funding for abortions as part of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, saying that he has “always been pro-choice and a supporter of Roe v. Wade,” and realizes now that his vote “caused real pain to constituents and other women.” While running for Congress in 2010, Perriello earned an A rating from the NRA, though during the governor’s primary he has called the gun-rights group “a nut-job extremist organization.”