WASHINGTON — Tom Perriello, the former congressman from Virginia, is considering a bid for governor, a move that would disrupt Democrats’ well-laid plans in perhaps the highest-profile election in the country this year.
Mr. Perriello, a State Department official who is close to President Obama, has told several Democrats that he is close to deciding whether to run in the party’s June 13 primary, according to two Democratic strategists familiar with the conversations.
Virginia and New Jersey hold their governor’s races the year after presidential elections, and the contests are often looked to for clues about the mood of the electorate toward the party that controls the White House. Democrats are heavily favored to win in New Jersey this November, but the Virginia race is likely to be hard-fought, with both parties expected to pour millions into the state.
Mr. Perriello did not respond to a voice mail and text message on Wednesday. If he were to enter the race to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is limited to a single term, Mr. Perriello could upend Mr. McAuliffe’s effort to avert a contentious primary. Leading Democrats have sought to clear the field for Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, hoping to give him a head start in fund-raising and organization while at least three Republicans vie for the nomination.
A run by Mr. Perriello would also expose the tensions between the moderate and progressive wings of a party that is increasingly dominant in a once-conservative state.
For decades, Virginia Democrats took care to distinguish themselves from their more liberal national party and present themselves as prudent centrists. But having carried Virginia in each of the last three presidential elections and controlling every statewide office, some Democratic activists there are hungry to elevate more unapologetic progressives.
Mr. Perriello, 42, largely fits that bill. Swept into office in the Democratic wave of 2008, he quickly became a favorite of the White House for his willingness to vote for the president’s agenda despite representing a right-of-center district. Mr. Obama took a personal liking to the first-term congressman, a Yale University-trained lawyer and human rights advocate, and even flew to Charlottesville on the Friday before the 2010 election to campaign for him.
Mr. Perriello lost that race in the Tea Party deluge but soon became an executive at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group, before Mr. Obama appointed him to the State Department, where he was a special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa until he left at the end of last month.
He also considered running for governor four years ago, with encouragement from some of Mr. Obama’s aides, and some Democrats believe he will not enter a race with only a little over five months before the primary.
“Tom is a very capable and popular person who served in Congress very well,” said former Representative L.F. Payne Jr., who once represented the same district as Mr. Perriello and now backs Mr. Northam. “I think that Ralph, though, is well prepared for the job, and Democrats feel good about him as our candidate. It’s awfully late for anybody else to think about getting in.”
Mr. Perriello appears to be more advanced in his deliberations this time, and one senior Virginia Democrat noted that a Richmond-based Democratic strategist, Don Mark, had also begun making calls on the former congressman’s behalf.
Should Mr. Perriello run, it would present Democrats with something of a generational and stylistic contrast. Mr. Northam, 57, is a low-key physician with deep roots on Virginia’s rural eastern shore and a diploma from the Virginia Military Institute — the sort of Democrat, in other words, who once flourished in the state.
While Mr. Northam is now largely in line with party orthodoxy, he was seen as moderate enough as a state senator that Republicans wooed him to consider switching parties.
Neither Mr. Perriello nor Mr. Northam is well-known to Virginia voters. Mr. Northam would enjoy a substantial financial advantage and the support of Mr. McAuliffe, who is popular with Democrats. The governor, in fact, is hosting a fund-raiser at his Northern Virginia home this weekend for Mr. Northam.
But Mr. Perriello is well liked among some liberal activists and could gain a following with the sort of highly engaged voters who show up in low-turnout summer primaries. To do so, though, he will have to fend off questions from the left about some of his stances on cultural issues. He was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in his 2010 campaign and cast some anti-abortion votes.
Republicans, meanwhile, are in the midst of their own primary battle. Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who nearly upset Senator Mark Warner in 2014, is the front-runner and favorite of the establishment wing. But he faces a high-volume challenge from President-elect Donald J. Trump’s onetime state campaign chairman, Corey Stewart, the chairman of the board of supervisors in Northern Virginia’s Prince William County; and state Senator Frank Wagner, a long-serving Republican from the Tidewater region.