Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday secured the endorsement of NARAL, a national abortion rights group, and its state affiliate in the tightly contested Democratic gubernatorial primary.
While the groups typically stay out of intraparty contests, its leaders say they want to reward Northam for his longstanding advocacy for abortion access. And they criticized Tom Perriello, Northam's rival for the Democratic nomination, over his abortion votes during his single term in Congress.
In the race for governor, both candidates are supporting abortion rights and have received 100 percent ratings from NARAL.
But the groups say they endorsed Northam because he has been one of their most reliable allies in the Virginia State House, including during a 2012 push to defeat a bill that would have required pregnant women to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound before an abortion.
While representing a conservative district in Congress, Perriello supported the controversial and ultimately unsuccessful Stupak amendment to the Affordable Care Act that would have barred health insurance plans that cover abortion from receiving federal subsidies. He has since disavowed that vote.
"Northam has been a consistent champion and built his career on it. When he was a congressman, Perriello's vote for the Stupak amendment was a vote to limit women's access to basic health care," said James Owen, a national NARAL spokesman. "That's a pretty stark contrast in records."
Perriello has told voters at town halls that he would veto the "same anti-choice legislation" that Northam would.
While in Congress, Perriello also voted against legislation that would defund Planned Parenthood and later ran the advocacy arm of the Center for American Progress, where he promoted abortion rights. One of his first gubernatorial campaign stops was a Falls Church abortion clinic - the same venue where NARAL announced its Northam endorsement on Monday.
In a statement, Perriello's campaign manager Julia Barnes questioned Northam's long-term support for abortion rights, noting that he had voted twice for President George W. Bush.
"Tom has always believed in a woman's right to make her own health care decisions, and NARAL confirmed today that Tom will stand with them 100 percent as governor to protect women's rights and keep Virginia a firewall against the endless Republican efforts to restrict them," said Barnes. "He is also the only Democratic candidate in this race who never voted to put an anti-choice candidate in the White House, who then put two anti-choice justices on the Supreme Court."
Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Virginia, said Northam is better suited to win the general election and to lead the commonwealth as someone who has been building relations in Richmond since he took office in 2008.
In the legislative session that ended last month, the Virginia General Assembly voted to defund Planned Parenthood - legislation that was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat. Lawmakers debated but did not pass another bill that would make abortion illegal after 20 weeks. Meawnhile, Congress and President Donald Trump are also weighing new abortion restrictions.
"Women's reproductive health and rights is on the cusp, and we want this to be a referendum on Trump and his agenda," said Keene.
Keene said NARAL would mobilize its volunteers and organizers on Northam's behalf. The primary is in June.