With voting now underway in Virginia’s Democratic primary (through June 8) and voting this Saturday in the Republican convention, we’re finally getting some clarity, or at least, better questions on the respective races.
1. Why is no one attacking Terry McAuliffe? The former governor, who hopes to pull a modern day Mills Godwin by serving two nonconsecutive terms, is clearly the front-runner in the Democratic contest. The latest poll, from the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University, shows McAuliffe at 47% and no other candidate higher than 8%. Why, then, aren’t the other four candidates — Del. Lee Carter, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan — being more forceful in attacking McAuliffe? They seem to be acting as if there’s plenty of time left to make their cases when, in fact, it’s really the morning of a very extended Election Day. Every day there are more votes already in the ballot box and not a single one of them had made a full-throated critique of why McAuliffe wasn’t that great of a governor (if that’s way they believe) or how time has now passed him by.
There’s an old adage that says if you strike the king, you must kill the king — meaning, if you’re attempting to challenge the established order, you’d best succeed or you’re in trouble. The opposite also holds — if you want to kill the king, you must strike the king. If any of these candidates wants to dislodge McAuliffe, they must first take him down rhetorically. There may be good strategic reasons why none of the four is willing to do this. In a multicandidate race, if one candidate goes after the front-runner, sometimes voters reject both of them. That’s what happened in the 2009 Democratic primary when McAuliffe and Brian Moran traded blows, only to see Creigh Deeds emerge as the nominee. Or maybe they realize McAuliffe is going to win, and they don’t want to damage him for the fall election; maybe they just hope to position themselves for a future run.
Still, Democrats nationally went ga-ga at the prospect of Stacy Abrams as governor of Georgia — and the nation’s first Black woman as governor. That always seemed hard, given Georgia’s voting history, but here Virginia Democrats have two Black women who are credible candidates and a state electorate far more inclined to support either, and the response both in-state and out-of-state seems a collective yawn. A white man’s ambition to serve a second term effectively blocks two Black women and Democrats, for all their professed interest in diversity, are lining up behind the white man without much protest.
2. How strong is the Democratic establishment? We’re seeing one test of that establishment in the governor’s race. We’ll see another in the lieutenant governor’s race, where Gov. Ralph Northam and other top party leaders have now backed Del. Hala Ayala of Prince William County for lieutenant governor. Since McAuliffe seems likely to win the nomination for governor, and Attorney General Mark Herring seems likely to be renominated for his post, the lieutenant governor’s race is really the only one truly open. The decision by top party leaders to rally around Ayala makes sense: It would be inconvenient for Democrats in 2021 to nominate an all-male ticket. Instead, these party leaders find it less inconvenient to nominate an all-Northern Virginia ticket. The desire to put a woman — and a woman with both Hispanic and Middle Eastern heritage — on the ticket might have come naturally to Democrats. But it might have been accelerated by the realization that Republicans might very well wind up nominating a ticket more diverse than Democrats.
The move also comes as the sprawling six-candidate field — there’s never been a statewide primary with that many candidates — shows signs of becoming less open. In February, a Wason Center poll shows no candidate with more than 2% of the vote. Last week’s poll showed Sam Rasoul starting to pull away from the pack — with 12%. No other candidate still in the race polled over 2%.
Rasoul’s showing isn’t a surprise to those to have paid attention: He’s done the best job lining up support from various “progressive” groups on the left. He has also devoted an interesting amount of time to something that other candidates haven’t — campaigning in rural and Western Virginia. There may not be a lot of Democratic votes here, but margins still matter. Rasoul is playing a smart hand: If a multicandidate field splits the urban crescent, a candidate who has courted rural Virginia might really have an advantage. Rasoul may also be looking much further over the horizon: If he wins the nomination, some on the right would surely try to attack his Muslim faith. But how scary can a guy be if he’s got his own bluegrass song? Has Rasoul’s strong showing alarmed the party establishment? And will that same establishment now be able to deliver for Ayala, who last week was still stuck at 2%? We’ll see.
3. How far right have Republicans gone? There once was a time when Kirk Cox would have been the obvious winner of the GOP nomination. For a party out of power to be able to field a former Speaker of the House — you can’t buy that kind of gravitas. His endorsements by two former governors (George Allen and Bob McDonnell) would surely seal the deal. So would a campaign history that shows Cox has won in a district that now otherwise votes Democratic, a useful skill for a Republican nominee in a state that hasn’t seen a Republican win statewide in 12 years. This isn’t that time, though. Republican conventions always comprise a more conservative voting base than even a Republican primary. Given the Republicans’ ranked-choice voting method, there seems little danger that Amanda “Trump in heels” Chase will win the nomination. But businessmen Pete Snyder seems to be laying claim to a more conservative slice of the party than Cox is — with endorsements from Rep. Bob Good, former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and other former Trump Administration officials. Another businessman, Glenn Youngkin, is a wild card with some impressive endorsements of his own, such as state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg. Barring something truly bizarre, it seems likely that out of a seven-candidate field, the Republican nominee will be one of those three — Cox, Snyder or Youngkin. This year’s Republican convention will tell us a lot about where the soul of the Republican Party is in the post-Trump era — if, indeed, it really is the post-Trump era.