He won’t be leading the Democratic ticket as his party’s candidate for governor, but Tom Perriello will spend the rest of the 2017 election cycle working on another political dream: taking over the GOP-dominated House of Delegates.
After falling short in his whirlwind gubernatorial primary run against Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, the former congressman will lead a new political action committee, Win Virginia, that will provide financial and strategic support to Democratic House candidates. The PAC is expected to invest about $800,000 to help Democrats try to flip Republican-held seats.
The GOP held a 66-34 House majority in this year’s legislative session, but the passions stirred up by Donald Trump’s presidency have Democrats hopeful that 2017 presents an opportunity to reshape the chamber.
“If we can connect that unprecedented energy out there to state races, including the delegate races, I think you could see a very different political landscape in Virginia than you’ve seen previously,” Perriello said in an interview, echoing a major theme of his insurgent campaign for governor.
Perriello, who worked as a progressive activist and diplomat after representing Virginia’s central 5th District for one term, lost to Northam by almost 12 percentage points on June 13, despite a surprisingly high primary turnout of around 540,000 voters that heightened the party’s expectations for November.
In addition to financial support, Perriello said, the PAC will help Democratic campaigns use lower-cost, technological solutions to reach new audiences such as the Facebook Live town halls that were a regular feature of Perriello’s gubernatorial campaign.
The PAC’s funding comes from a small group of donors, mostly in Northern Virginia, who decided to pool their resources to make an impact in House races, said Shaun Daniels, the PAC’s executive director. Among the early contributions to the PAC are $100,000 from Edward Rice, a Vienna stockbroker and major Democratic donor; $60,000 from Herndon IT executive Shashikant Gupta; and $50,000 from Reid Hoffman, a San Francisco venture capitalist and co-founder of the professional networking site LinkedIn, according to data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
This year, Democrats have fielded challengers in 54 of the 66 GOP-held districts, an unusually high number that includes all 17 Republican-represented districts that Hillary Clinton won last year. Most of the Democrats’ strongest pickup opportunities are in the Northern Virginia suburbs, but Democrats are also expected to target a handful of GOP-held districts west of Richmond.
Perriello, who will serve in a paid capacity as the PAC’s CEO, didn’t name any specific candidates, but said the organization will work to support candidates “excited” about going out and winning votes of people who normally don’t pay attention to down-ticket races in an off-year election.
“It would be a mistake for us to assume that anti-Trump energy is necessarily pro-Democratic Party energy,” Perriello said. “We have to earn those votes. We earn those votes by being present and making the case.”
Even though the statewide races draw most of the attention, Perriello said, making inroads in the House could have a “massive impact.”
“I think the radical gerrymandering of the House of Delegates by Republicans has created one of the main barriers in the state to greater economic growth, college affordability, living wages and many other fights,” Perriello said.
Faced with a surge of Democratic challengers, Republicans have pushed back by saying the sheer quantity of candidates, many of them political newcomers going up against longtime incumbents, won’t translate into quality campaigns in all 56 districts.
The fact that 17 Republican-represented districts voted for Clinton last year, they have said, refutes the notion that the GOP’s strength in the House is built on a rigged map.
House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said it’s hard to predict in June whether Democrats can realistically expect to gain 18 seats or whether it’ll be closer to five. Even if Democrats don’t gain a majority, more seats in the House will mean more seats on committees and more power to tweak or defeat Republican-sponsored legislation, Toscano said.
Perriello’s continued involvement in 2017 campaign efforts, Toscano said, will bring “a lot of creativity.”
“He is one of the most talented people we have in Virginia politics,” Toscano said. “The fact that after a difficult primary campaign that takes a lot of energy he would try to stay active and try to make a difference in this fall’s election, I think, is a testament to him.”