Bob Woods says he chose idealism over pragmatism in the presidential race when he voted in the Virginia primary for Sen. Bernard Sanders over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Now he is facing the same dilemma in the governor’s primary race, where he is deciding between following his head and backing Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the establishment pick, or following his heart and backing former Rep. Tom Perriello, who has won Mr. Sanders’ endorsement.
“You can be that liberal in Arlington, but I don’t think you can be that liberal in the state of Virginia and get through,” Mr. Woods said shortly after chatting with Mr. Perriello on Wednesday. “I would like to see him get through, but I think you have to be pragmatic too. You have to build a coalition somewhere in the middle.”
Many other Virginia voters share Mr. Woods’ dilemma.
As Democrats continue to pick up the pieces from last year’s staggering election losses, Virginia’s Democratic primary on Tuesday will be closely watched as one of the first major tests of the party’s direction.
Mr. Perriello, who served in Congress from 2009 to 2011, has six days left to convince voters that his progressive brand of politics can lead Democrats to victory in Virginia and can give the party a road map forward.
The 42-year-old lawyer is locked in a tight battle with Mr. Northam, who has the support of most top elected Virginia Democrats and who won the endorsement this week from The Washington Post, which is well-read in liberal-leaning Northern Virginia.
Mr. Northam, a pediatric neurologist who served in the state Senate from 2008 until 2014, when he became lieutenant governor, also is leading the money chase, having raised more than $4.4 million for his campaign. Mr. Perriello has played catch-up since entering the race in January, raising more than $2.2 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
More than half of Mr. Perriello’s donations have come from outside Virginia as he attracts the attention of progressives across the nation eager to boost a Sanders pick.
He casts his race as a test of the Trump resistance.
“I think right now people across the political spectrum are trying to figure out whether this concern about the Trump administration is going to translate into a different political landscape,” Mr. Perriello told The Washington Times.
He said a win in Virginia would show progressive Democrats that they can make a difference at the state level.
“For many of the things that people care about — from criminal justice reform to quality of education to women’s rights — states are really the front line for a lot of these progressive fights,” Mr. Perriello said. “But our media is nationalized, many of our groups are nationalized, so what we are really trying to do is say states matter, and so if you care about these set of issues, this is an important thing to engage in.”
The Democratic primary winner is most likely to face off with Ed Gillespie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush. Polls show he has a commanding lead in the Republican primary race with Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner.
Mr. Perriello plans to kick off a 24-hour nonstop campaign blitz on Friday that includes scheduled stops in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and western Virginia.
On Wednesday, he was in the vote-rich northern part of the state, holding a town hall meeting with grass-roots activists, touring an Ethiopian restaurant and chatting with Mr. Woods and other senior citizens at an assisted living facility in Arlington.
For voters like Mr. Woods who are trying to decide between their heads and their hearts, Mr. Perriello says he can be the answer to both sides of the equation.
“I think the question right now is what comes next for the Democratic Party,” the candidate told The Times. “What is a campaign frame that can win across the whole state, and I think we have had what I see as a false debate in our party about whether to excite our base or reach out to new voters, and we have been able to show you can do both when you stand for genuine economic recovery that leads no region or race behind. We are seeing both excitement from our coalition and excitement in a lot of red parts of the state.”
But Ofirah Yheskel, a Northam spokeswoman, said her boss has broader support.
“The lieutenant governor’s appeal to voters new and old is that he can actually deliver on his progressive vision for a commonwealth with opportunity with all,” Ms. Yheskel said. “He’s outperformed any statewide candidate running in Virginia, making history with the highest number of votes in an off-year election, period. He’s set to repeat that this Tuesday because he knows how to get things done in Richmond and has a record of delivering progressive results to show for it.”
In his meeting with the senior citizens, Mr. Perriello touted his progressive credentials, including his votes during his one term in Congress for Obamacare, a “cap and trade” bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions and the 2009 stimulus act.
He vowed to defend voting rights and expand Medicaid under Obamacare. He also criticized Mr. Trump’s push to withhold federal funding from “sanctuary cities,” increase deportation efforts and pull out of the Paris climate agreement.
He is campaigning on Sanders-style promises of two years of free community college, trade school or apprenticeship for Virginia teens, casting it as part of a broader vision of setting up the state for a strong economic future.
Afterward, a woman who identified herself as Linda gushed that Mr. Perriello has Mr. Sanders on his side. “I have been in despair since the election — so you have given me hope again,” she said.
Mr. Woods, meanwhile, told The Times that he remains torn between the candidates — though he refused to rule out voting for Mr. Perriello.
“Sometimes I vote upon conviction even though I know I am going to lose,” he said. “I think that registering your vote even though you know it is a losing cause has meaning. I think it makes a statement.”