Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello are neck-and-neck for the Democratic nomination in the Virginia governor’s race, according to a poll by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy.
The poll also found that Republican Ed Gillespie, a former national party chairman and 2014 U.S. Senate nominee, is maintaining his wide lead in the GOP primary field.
The poll released Tuesday showed Northam and Perriello each with 26 percent support among Democratic-leaning respondents, with 45 percent undecided.
Perriello’s showing was up 11 percentage points from a CNU poll released Feb. 2 that found Northam with 26 percent to Perriello’s 15 percent.
“A lot more people are paying attention to the race since we got in, and the people that are tuning in seem to be breaking our way,” Perriello said in an interview Tuesday before a roundtable discussion on political redistricting in Richmond.
Perriello launched his upstart, progressive campaign in early January, surprising many in the Democratic establishment who long had backed Northam and expected him to have a smooth path to the nomination to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The Northam campaign cast doubt on the accuracy of the CNU poll by releasing internal poll numbers of likely Democratic voters that showed Northam with a 38-19 advantage, with 43 percent undecided.
Northam’s team said its poll surveyed “likely Democratic voters” rather than a general election sample of registered voters as used in the CNU poll.
Perriello called the Northam campaign’s revelation of internal numbers “a little desperate.” He declined to characterize his own internal numbers other than saying “we feel very good right now.”
“Just a few months ago, nobody expected to be saying that the real action in this primary would be on the Democratic side, but that’s where it is,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center.
“The Democratic primary for governor looks to be a replay in some respects of last year’s presidential primary.”
The poll showed supporters of insurgent Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders favored Perriello, while backers of eventual nominee Hillary Clinton were more likely to support Northam.
Among Clinton voters, 34 percent support Northam and 25 percent support Perriello. Among Sanders supporters, 32 percent back Perriello and 21 percent favor Northam.
On the Republican side, Gillespie showed signs of pulling away from Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, and state Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach.
Gillespie drew 38 percent support among Republican-leaning respondents in the CNU poll, compared with 11 percent for Stewart and 10 percent for Wagner.
Despite Gillespie’s strong position in the GOP primary, the poll found him with weaker support, 32 percent, among voters who supported President Donald Trump last year.
“A Trump effect adds some uncertainty to the Republican contest,” said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director at the Wason Center.
“Gillespie, the establishment favorite, is underperforming among voters who preferred Trump to all those insider Republicans last year. But Stewart and Wagner don’t seem to be picking them up, either.”
The poll, based on a landline and cellphone survey of 831 registered voters, was conducted March 16-26 and has a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.
In the first independent polling in the race for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, led the GOP primary field with 17 percent support, compared with 13 percent for Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr., R-Virginia Beach, and 10 percent for state Sen. Bryce E. Reeves, R-Spotsylvania.
Activist and consultant Susan Platt led the Democratic field for lieutenant governor with 20 percent. Former federal prosecutors Justin Fairfax and Gene Rossi drew 11 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
The primaries are scheduled for June 13.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the Republican side of the poll seems representative of where the race stands, but he cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from the Democratic result.
Low-turnout primaries, he said, are won in the last four to six weeks, and it’s simply too early for many voters to be focused on the race.
“After last fall, I’m amazed that people are paying such close attention to polling,” Sabato said.