Sanders, who gained his national following by running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, has refused to endorse the Democratic candidate, Ralph Northam, a mainstream progressive. This signals the left-winger’s determination to set ideological litmus tests for Democrats.
Bannon, the former top strategist for President Donald Trump, is on a mission to destroy the Republican Party establishment. In Virginia, he’s helped pressure Republican Ed Gillespie, a quintessential establishment figure, to embrace immigrant-bashing and race-baiting.
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The significance of the Nov. 7 contest extends beyond the state’s borders. A Northam victory would be welcomed by Obama-Clinton Democrats and would diminish Trump, a frequent target of the Democrat’s speeches and commercials.
A Gillespie win would embolden Trump and Bannon, who has threatened to take out any Republican who doesn’t toe the Trumpian populist line. It also might buttress Sanders’s argument that Democrats should move further leftward to energize voters who didn’t respond to Hillary Clinton’s cautious liberalism last year.
Both parties and many outside groups are pouring millions of dollars into the race, with Virginia one of two states to elect a governor this year. In the other, New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a banker, is expected to defeat the Republican lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, and replace the unpopular Republican incumbent Chris Christie.
In Virginia, Northam won the Democratic nomination in June after an intense primary contest, with Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren backing former Rep. Tom Perriello. Northam had the support of Obama-Clinton Democrats like Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is blocked by term limits from seeking more time in office, along with Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.
Northam won a surprisingly convincing victory and Perriello has actively campaigned for him.
Sanders hasn’t. His political organization, “Our Revolution,” endorsed six Democrats in state legislative races but pointedly declined to back Northam. The Democratic nominee has taken standard liberal positions on taxes, health care and education and favors expanding Medicaid for poor Virginians and liberalizing immigration policies. But he doesn’t back Sanders’s embrace of a single-payer national health care system and free college education.
Democratic strategists hope that disdain for Trump will matter more to Virginia liberals than the Sanders snub. But they worry about the national effect of a rule-or-ruin Sanders strategy of insisting that Democratic candidates next year and in 2020 toe his line or face opposition from his energetic base.