Six weeks into his campaign, former Rep. Tom Perriello has moved into a tie with Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam for the Democratic nomination for governor, but most voters are undecided ahead of the June primary, according to a new survey.
Perriello, the former one-term congressman whose surprise entry in January scrambled the Democratic contest, matched Northam at 19 percent in the Quinnipiac poll out Thursday, but 61 percent were undecided.
Ed Gillespie, former head of the Republican National Committee, led the GOP primary field with 24 percent to 7 percent for Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors; 5 percent for state Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach; and 2 percent for Denver Riggleman, co-owner of Silverback Distillery in Nelson County. Most Republicans — 59 percent — also are undecided about four months ahead of the June 13 primary.
In head-to-head match-ups, either Democrat defeats each of the four potential GOP nominees in the survey.
“Although none of the candidates — Democrat or Republican — is very well known to the Virginia electorate, the Old Dominion obviously has a blue tinge at this point,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.
“The fact that relatively unknown Democrats are scoring better than relatively unknown Republicans indicates that, for now at least, this Democratic brand is more attractive to Virginia voters.”
Virginia was the only Southern state that backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential contest. Republicans have not won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, but the voter turnout plummets a year after the presidential election, which traditionally makes such off-year contests close.
Perriello has sought to cast himself as a passionate opponent of the new president’s administration. Perriello apologized Wednesday after video surfaced of him at a campaign event comparing Donald Trump’s victory to the Sept. 11 attacks — a remark that drew condemnation from Northam as well as from the GOP hopefuls.
Northam, who also has decried the early days of the Trump administration, retains the support of the four other Democrats who hold statewide office.
In recent days, Northam has underscored his support of women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights and called for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.
“Northam has been more visible, energetic and issue-oriented over the last 10 days than he had been in the last three years,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran analyst of Virginia politics, formerly at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Northam still has advantages in the Democratic contest in his broad support among Democratic officials at the local and state levels, Holsworth said.
While the conventional wisdom is that Perriello’s campaign hurts Northam by diverting his attention — and money — to an unexpected primary battle, Holsworth said Perriello may help Northam and the party in the long run, by lighting a fire under the lieutenant governor.
“It’s making him act like a candidate and not just someone who’s going to be coronated.”
Perriello was swept into Congress when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. He represented the 5th District, then covering Charlottesville and a swath of Southside, from 2009 to 2011, leaving office following his defeat by Republican Robert Hurt. Late in the Obama administration, Perriello served as U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist, served in the state Senate from 2008 to 2014. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2013.
In potential head-to-head match-ups, Perriello tops Gillespie by 43 percent to 36 percent; Wagner by 43 percent to 32 percent; Stewart by 44 percent to 31 percent; and Riggleman by 43 percent to 30 percent.
Northam tops Gillespie by 41 percent to 35 percent; Wagner by 41 percent to 33 percent; Stewart by 42 percent to 31 percent; and Riggleman by 42 percent to 31 percent.
Quinnipiac surveyed 989 Virginia voters between Feb. 10 and 15. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
In a Feb. 2 poll from Christopher Newport University, Northam received 26 percent of the vote to 15 percent for Perriello.
In the CNU poll, Gillespie had a wide lead among the GOP field, with 33 percent to 9 percent for Wagner, 7 percent for Stewart and 1 percent for Riggleman.
Quinnipiac’s survey on the governor’s race is its first since December, before Perriello or Riggleman joined the contest and before Rep. Robert J. Wittman, R-1st, announced he would not seek the GOP nomination.
In Quinnipiac’s Dec. 14 poll, Gillespie topped the GOP field. In a potential head to head match-up, Northam received 38 percent to 34 percent for Gillespie.