An election – such as this week’s Democratic primary – provides answers. Now we have more questions. Among them:
1. Will Terry McAuliffe agree to a debate in Southwest Virginia? Last year we made the editorial case that Southwest Virginia needed to establish a tradition of hosting a gubernatorial debate. There’s always a debate in Northern Virginia, and there’s always a debate before the Virginia Bar Association (which sometimes meets in West Virginia!). No candidate would dare duck one of them. We need to make sure there’s some venue that forces the candidates to address the unique issues of Southwest Virginia. We were partially successful in 2017 when the University of Virginia’s College at Wise hosted a debate – although the candidates often played to the cameras to talk to voters elsewhere. The Appalachian School of Law in Grundy has stepped up and volunteered to host such a debate this fall – and issued a formal invitation last December. The leaders of 14 other educational institutions signed on to endorse that invite. Nine state legislators – from both parties – followed up in February to echo that call for a Southwest Virginia debate. Many of the candidates seeking their party’s nominations for governor said they’d accept that invite – including the eventual Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin. One, though, has not – McAuliffe, now the Democratic nominee. So now we ask again: Will McAuliffe agree to a Southwest Virginia debate?
2. Who won even though they lost? Sometimes a candidate who doesn’t win is recognized as having run a good race, which puts them in line for a future run. That was the case in 1996, when Democrat Mark Warner came surprisingly close to ousting then-Sen. John Warner; that set up Mark Warner to run for governor in 2001. The most obvious such “winner” out of Tuesday’s primary was Jay Jones, the Norfolk delegate who challenged Attorney General Mark Herring for re-nomination. Democrats seemed to feel good about his candidacy; he might have been the nominee by acclamation if he hadn’t gotten boxed out when Herring changed his mind about running for governor and ran for re-election. Expect to see Jones running again.
Don’t be surprised to see Jennifer Carroll Foy again, either. She didn’t come close to winning in the governor’s race, but she did manage to outmaneuver Jennifer McClellan to finish second – with just less than 20% of the vote, well ahead of McClellan’s 12%. McClellan got squeezed on both sides. Without McAuliffe in the race, she might have been the establishment favorite. With him in, she wasn’t – then Foy won support on her left. She could conceivably be back, too.
In the lieutenant governor’s race, Roanoke’s Sam Rasoul was a surprise contender who made a good impression. Rasoul showed lots of strength in the Shenandoah Valley, Southwest Virginia and Southside. In 23 localities, he polled more than 50% of the vote, which is tough to do in a six-way race. He ran far stronger in his part of the state than the eventual winner – Hala Ayala of Prince William County – did in hers. Rasoul took 86% of the vote in his hometown; she took 47% in her home county. The problem is that even with a smaller percentage she still got almost twice as many votes in Prince William as Rasoul did in Roanoke. That raises a related question . . .
3. Can any candidate from the western part of the state hope to win a statewide race? Given the state’s demographics that shift eastward (and northward) with every election, it’s hard. However, we can’t say the answer is always going to be “no” because Rasoul showed a possible path. His second-place finish was better than the third- and fourth-place vote totals put together, and Mark Levine of Alexandria and Andria McClellan of Norfolk had the advantage of a base in the urban crescent. In most of Northern Virginia, Rasoul polled a very respectable second. In massive Fairfax County, Ayala took 33.5% to Rasoul’s 28.4% — pretty impressive considering that Ayala came from next door and was presumably already part of the local political conversation and Rasoul came from west of the Blue Ridge and was a new figure.
Rasoul conceivably could have won if not for some factors he had no control over. First, there was a sentiment among some Democratic voters that they shouldn’t nominate an all-male ticket, and with McAuliffe and Herring winning big, that meant the only option for diversity was to nominate a woman for lieutenant governor. Second, the party establishment – notably Gov. Ralph Northam and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn – lined up behind Ayala. As we saw in the overall results, the Democratic establishment counts for a lot. Third, Rasoul was hurt by the weakness of some of the other candidates. He especially did not fare well in Hampton Roads – but neither did the local candidate, Andria McClellan. She didn’t win her hometown; she didn’t win anywhere, which opened the way for Ayala to roll up margins there. Still, McClellan would have had to more than double her performance, and take all those votes from Ayala, for Rasoul to have won. Rasoul did part of what he had to do – maximize his western base, be competitive in Northern Virginia, but then his luck ran out.
Perhaps the bigger question is why no serious Republican from this part of the state has tried to seek a statewide nomination; a western Republican might fare better given how much of the Republican base is in rural Virginia.
4. Is the Democratic left overrated? The loudest and sometimes best-known voices in the party are certainly on the left – think of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on a national basis, or virtually all of the Democratic chatter on Twitter. Yet they have consistently been outvoted. In 2017, Ralph Northam easily bested Tom Periello. In 2020, Joe Biden won over lots of more progressive contenders. And now in 2021, the party establishment prevailed in three statewide nominations and, arguably, all but one House nominations. Four incumbents lost – three of them progressives. The Clean Virginia environmental group backed multiple challenges to incumbents from the left – all but one of those challenges fell short. We’ve seen some party activists bemoan this on social media, but it’s not as if some smoke-filled room of old white men picked these candidates. Actual Democratic voters did. Much like some Republicans after the presidential vote, the left just doesn’t like the results. The party is clearly more than what’s on Twitter, which is a good lesson for all of us.
—The Roanoke Times