RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello announced a surprise bid for governor on Thursday, shaking up what had seemed to be a settled Democratic nomination with promises to help lead the progressives' fight against Donald Trump.
The former one-term congressman from Charlottesville and State Department envoy, a favorite of some progressives, will face off against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a moderate, in the Democratic primary in June.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Perriello said he was motivated to run in part by the Republican's presidential victory.
"A lot changed with the election results, people are looking for someone who can get the base excited to show up and still win independents," Perriello said.
Perriello said Trump ran a "racist" campaign that played on voters' disaffection with a "rigged" political system that Perriello said he's been fighting against for years.
"We need to figure out a way where we can challenge a rigged system without trying to divide neighbors against each other," he said.
His announcement shocked much of Virginia's political establishment, which for more than a year has considered Northam to be the presumptive Democratic nominee. But it also highlights skepticism among some that Northam, a low-key physician who is still largely unknown statewide, can defeat a well-funded Republican in November.
Perriello said he and Northam "agree on just about everything," but said his campaign will bring the "the kind of energy" and experience necessary to win in the general election.
Northam has effectively been running for nearly two years, raising more than $1.5 million and locking up endorsements of party leaders including Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Northam's campaign manager, Brad Komar, said Northam is proud to have the support of top Democrats and others, and will "continue to fight" Republicans on gay rights and abortion issues.
A Yale Law School graduate, Perriello narrowly won a Republican-leaning congressional seat in central Virginia in 2008 when President Barack Obama swept into office but lost two years later in the Republican rebound. He flirted with a gubernatorial run in 2013, but has been largely absent from state politics in recent years. He most recently served as a special State Department envoy to Africa.
The initial reaction to Perriello's decision to run was mixed among state Democrats. State Sen. Dick Saslaw called it an ill-advised "suicide mission" that would only succeed in hurting his party's eventual nominee.
"The only thing he's capable of doing is making Ralph spend some money," Saslaw said.
Former state Del. Michael Futrell, a key surrogate to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during the presidential campaign, said progressives could gravitate to Perriello over the more mainstream Northam, but it's not a foregone conclusion.
"These Sanders supporters, they aren't just looking for names, they're looking to see what you're willing to fight for," Futrell said.
Virginia's gubernatorial contest is expected to be one of the most closely watched races in the country this year, as it will be the first competitive contest in a swing state after Trump's victory.
On the Republican side, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie is squaring off against a former Trump campaign state chairman, Corey Stewart, and state Sen. Frank Wagner.