Two-and-a-half months before the Virginia Democratic primary elections, the party’s three Lt. Gov candidates are still trying to distinguish themselves for voters – and each other.
Ahead of the June 13 primary, a recent poll shows 60 percent of Virginian voters have no preference when it comes to candidates Susan Platt, Justin Fairfax and Gene Rossi.
The candidates themselves aren’t doing much to showcase their differences.
Speaking before Democratic supporters in Fairfax April 2, the three offered similar support for key liberal issues like environmental protection, immigration rights and medicaid expansion. While Republicans have jockeyed their way into voter’s minds by honing in on divergent approaches on issues like the economy and transportation, the Democratic Lt. Gov candidates are in lockstep in a race overshadowed by an unexpectedly competitive gubernatorial race and an high profile attorney general.
This year’s Democratic primary for governor is garnering national media attention as a microcosm of the party’s progressive wing and it’s establishment base. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has received endorsements from the vast majority of party leaders and campaigned on his widespread appeal and a more moderate approach. Former congressman Tom Perriello has come in at Northam’s left, unapologetically championing more progressive stances.
Some political observers have compared it to the 2016 presidential primary between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and as a larger referendum on the party’s nationwide direction moving forward.
Mark Herring, the incumbent Democratic attorney general seeking re-election, has also garnered the nationwide spotlight. In 2014 he made headlines, and many conservative detractors, when said his office would no longer defend the Virginia Marriage Amendment banning same-sex marriages, and more recently was one of the first litigators looking to prevent president Donald Trump’s travel ban from seven predominately Muslim countries. Even before he clinched the Republican party nomination for Attorney General last week, John Adams has attacked Herring, saying he is the sole reason he entered the race and a threat to democracy.
Raising the stakes further is Virginia’s unusual odd-numbered year elections. One of two states, along with New Jersey, with statewide elections in the year following a presidential election, Virginia’s vote is considered a referendum on the president and party.
Still, the Lt. Gov. position itself has rarely garnered voter interest like the other two offices. While it is the Commonwealth’s second-highest elected office, it has little direct authority beyond replacing the governor should he or she resign, pass away or be removed from office.
The next Lt. Gov. will also vote to break ties in the Virginia’s Senate, which is in Republican control with a 21-19 majority,
All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election in 2017, though Republicans are expected to maintain their current advantage in that chamber as well. That means even should Democrats pass through something in the Senate, it is likely to be thwarted in the more conservative and partisan House. Senators won’t be voted on again until 2019.
All this hinders opportunities to distinguish the three Lt. Gov. candidates, none of whom have ever held political office, though all three have been actively involved in Democratic politics for decades.
At the event in Fairfax, each dropped a Who’s Who list of names of high profile Democrats they had worked for, with and/or supported, but it did little to show how they would vote if elected – or why that set them ahead of their opponents.
Platt has shot up to the top of the polls, garnering 20 percent of the vote, despite entering the race about two months ago. Conversely, Fairfax, who gained statewide attention while running against Herring in the 2013 Attorney General race, has campaigned for close to a year and is garnering just 11 percent. Rossi has similarly been on the campaign trail for months, and is polling at six percent.
Though her policies and experience in elected office are similar to her opponents, Platt is the only female Democratic candidate and the only one without a legal background. She also was the only candidate to mention a potential Republican opponent while speaking to Democrats on April 2.
Platt said the Commonwealth was overdue for a female Lt. Gov, and that it shouldn’t be State Sen. Jill Vogel. Platt called the Republican Lt. Gov frontrunner “Transvaginal” Jill Vogel, knocking her for her stances against abortion.
The other two candidates were also quick to show off their pro-choice and women’s rights credentials, including support for the recent Women’s March on Washington. Additionally, each one tried to one up the other with their praise for the Affordable Care Act, with Rossi calling it former president Barack Obama’s “greatest accomplishment”.
Each said they would also vote for Medicaid expansion which Virginia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly has so far opposed, though it would almost assuredly require Democratic control of the House, Governor’s mansion and a tied Senate for them to be able to do so as Lt. Gov.
In Fairfax, as they have on the campaign trail, the trio all shared their efforts to work against against Trump’s agenda. While all took shots at the president, their comments were muted compared to what Republicans have said about Herring, Obama, current Gov. Terry McAuliffe and at times, each other. Inspired by Trump’s divisive policies and massive counter protests like the Women’s March, Virginia Democrats have increasingly ascribed to campaigns centered on positive change. Though their opposite party has control of the presidency, Senate, House of Representatives and the majority of governorships, Democrats have seen a groundswell of support from self-described opposition groups as indicators their upbeat focus on progress is resonating with the masses.
“We can be the match that sparks the wildfire of progressive change all across this country and all across this world,” Fairfax said.
The Lt. Gov candidates have shown similar respect toward each other. Fairfax even declined to call the other two candidates “opponents” instead saying the three were working for the same goal.
This stands in sharp contrast to the three Republican Lt. Gov candidates. The GOP has created two clear rival camps between state senators Vogel and Bryant Reeves. Vogel has tried to separate herself form Reeves, who also touts his conservative credentials, by going to his right on many issues, saying she is the most ardent supporter of gun rights and pro-life groups. Glenn Davis has in turn distanced himself from the two, saying he’s the the more moderate, reasonable alternative.
While the Republican approach may hurt party unity, it has better entrenched those candidates in the public’s mind, and polls show they have gained modest name recognition over their Democratic opponents.