The heavily watched June 13 primary in Virginia offered several surprises, most notably record-setting Democratic turnout and Corey Stewart’s near upset of Ed Gillespie in the GOP gubernatorial race. Conversely, hometown favorite Tom Perriello’s race against Ralph Northam for governor was expected to be much closer than Northam’s 12-point win.
And in city Democratic primary races, challengers Amy Laufer and Heather Hill handily unseated incumbent Bob Fenwick, and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Joe Platania blew out progressive, Equity and Progress in Charlottesville-endorsed opponent Jeff Fogel.
The energized progressive element of the Democratic party fielded House Minority Leader David Toscano’s first primary challenger, UVA instructor Ross Mittiga, in the 57th District in a dozen years.
And yet when the dust settled, establishment Dems were still firmly entrenched, and the upset threat came in the Republican Party, with former Trump Virginia campaign manager Stewart nearly toppling expected shoo-in Ed Gillespie in the GOP governor’s race.
‘It was certainly the closest of the races and the biggest surprise of the night,” says UVA’s Center for Politics analyst Geoffrey Skelley. Gillespie, who nearly unseated Senator Mark Warner in 2014 and was expected to be the GOP standard bearer, squeaked by Stewart with slightly more than a point.
Stewart’s message was “‘I was Trump before Trump,’” says Skelley. “It’s hard to dismiss his play to cultural conservatives and attaching himself to the Confederate monument issue.” Stewart made several visits to Charlottesville over City Council’s vote to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. “He got his name out there,” says Skelley.
On the other hand, Dem turnout could be unsettling for Republicans in the fall. “The Democrats were clearly animated,” observes Skelley. “They had record-setting turnout for a non-presidential primary.”
While it’s not surprising that Perriello claimed 80 percent of the votes in Charlottesville, in the state’s major metropolitan areas, he trailed Northam by 15 points in Northern Virginia, and even more in Richmond. And in Northam’s home base of the Hampton Roads area, Northam led by 40 percent, says Skelley.
In Charlottesville, many predicted Laufer’s victory and saw it as a battle between Fenwick, who was endorsed by EPIC, and Hill. Laufer took a hefty 46 percent of the vote, while Hill picked up 34 percent and Fenwick nabbed a meager 20 percent.
“First of all, [Fenwick] was wildly outspent and arguably out-worked,” says former mayor Dave Norris, an EPIC founder who is no longer on its board.
“My sense is among the general population, there’s a lot of frustration with what is going on in the city and a lot of them took it out on Bob,” adds Norris.
EPIC also endorsed civil rights lawyer Jeff Fogel for commonwealth’s attorney. Fogel garnered 32 percent of the vote, but Norris doesn’t see that as a resounding defeat.
“Jeff played an important role in bringing attention to systemic racial inequity in the criminal justice system and the failure of the war on drugs,” says Norris. “His presence forced his opponent to take bolder positions.”
Unknown is what factor Fogel’s June 2 arrest for assault, stemming from a confrontation at Miller’s with an associate of whites-righter Jason Kessler, played in the voting booth.
“My position is progressives did great,” says Fogel, who says he got far more votes than expected because of the surge in turnout.
With progressive candidates like Perriello, Mittiga and Fogel being shut out of Democratic nominations, what does that bode for the fall?
“I think the progressive candidates and the progressive community has its work cut out for it,” says Norris. “It’s going to take a lot of mobilizing, maybe smarter strategy and more resources to prevail.”
On City Council, he says, “I think this is the year [independent] Nikuyah Walker could pull off a victory,” although she faces an ever-growing pool of independent candidates, as well as Dem nominees Laufer and Hill, in the November election.
Far from being disheartened by progressive candidates’ lackluster showings, Norris says, “Everyone understands change takes time. It’s important to get people into the debate. We may not have won this election, but we certainly influenced the debate.”
And in other state primary races, Justin Fairfax took the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, while state Senator Jill Vogel edged out state Senator Bryce Reeves in an acrimonious contest that included a defamation suit.
A Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial opined that Reeves was unsuitable for office after he criticized Vogel for supporting “the first openly gay judge in Virginia.”
Skelley is skeptical that the piece impacted Reeves, who took 40 percent of the primary vote, in a GOP contest where “Corey Stewart nearly won.” Says Skelley, “I don’t think gay bashing is going to hurt you in that situation.”
Correction June 15: Dave Norris said “smarter strategy,” not “harder strategy” would be needed for progressives. And Amy Laufer won with 46 percent of the vote.
Updated June 19 with Fogel comment.