Virginia Democrats go to the polls Tuesday to pick – oops! That’s how we used to write these primary set-ups. Now, with early voting, it’s more accurate to say that Virginia Democrats have been voting since April 23 – and we’ll find out Tuesday night who they’ve picked to run for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
There have been few public polls, so all we can go by is how the candidates – who probably do have access to some private polls – are reacting to one another. For all the restiveness we see on the Democratic left, the party appears poised to nominate at least two candidates who would qualify as being part of the “establishment.” Will they nominate three?
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe is clearly the front-runner as he attempts to do what only one other governor in Virginia history has ever done – serve two non-consecutive terms. (That other was Mills Godwin, who served as a conservative Democrat in the late ‘60s and then a conservative Republican in the early ‘70s as the parties began realigning). McAuliffe is everything that the more progressive factions of his party are not – a business-friendly Democrat who endorsed not one but two natural gas pipelines when he was in office before. In last year’s presidential race, all the excitement was with the more progressive candidates, but it was Joe Biden, the most centrist of the options, who won the nomination. Will we find out Tuesday that all that progressive excitement in Virginia is confined to the Twitterverse and not the voting booth? That would be one conclusion if McAuliffe wins.
Part of the problem for those who don’t want McAuliffe is that there are simply too many other candidates. In a five-way race (the biggest gubernatorial primary ever in Virginia), McAuliffe doesn’t need a majority to win. If this were a two-way contest against either of his best-funded challengers – former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy or state Sen. Jennifer McClellan – this would be a far different race. It’s not, though, and there’s no evidence so far that anti-McAuliffe forces have been able to unite around a single candidate.
The 2021 field is fascinating on many levels. When Stacey Abrams ran for governor of Georgia, she became a cause célèbre – she even made the cover of TIME magazine. If either Foy or McClellan were the nominee, she would have a better chance of becoming the nation’s first Black female governor than Abrams did in Georgia – they would be running in a state that has, of late, consistently elected Democrats. Abrams wasn’t. And yet neither Foy nor McClellan has generated that kind of celebrity status. Indeed, the state’s highest-ranking woman in office – House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn – has endorsed McAuliffe. So have many of the state’s top Black legislators. It’s curious to see so many women and Black politicians effectively telling two Black women that they must “wait their turn.”
Some of that may simply be practical; if McAuliffe is known for one thing, it’s his ability to raise money and that trait became a lot more valuable after Republicans nominated the wealthy Glenn Youngkin as their candidate for governor. Indeed, Youngkin has raised more money than even McAuliffe has, which ought to alarm Democrats. Youngkin is already at $15.9 million, McAuliffe at $14.8 million, with Foy at $4.7 million, McClellan at $2.9 million. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax at $327,297 and Del. Lee Carter at $244,491 are barely on the scale. That raises a troubling question for those backing someone other than McAuliffe: Can that candidate, as appealing as you might think he or she is, really raise enough money to compete against Youngkin? For that matter, can even McAuliffe raise enough?
In the attorney general’s race, Mark Herring is attempting to do what no one has done since Abram Penn Staples of Martinsville in the 1940s – get elected to three terms. That has complicated the ambitions of Del. Jay Jones of Norfolk, a rising star in the party who had planned to run for attorney general back when Herring said he was going to run for governor and then changed his mind. Gov. Ralph Northam has endorsed Jones, but it’s unclear whether that will be enough; Herring seems to have used his office to do virtually all the things Democrats would want him to do. If he is denied renomination, it would probably be more surprising than McAuliffe losing.
If that conventional wisdom is right – and who knows how the conventional wisdom is faring these days? – that means the party is poised to nominate two white men, which automatically means Democrats will field a ticket less diverse than the Republican one, which includes a Black woman (Winsome Sears) for lieutenant governor and a Latino man (Jason Miyares) for attorney general. Given how much Democrats say they prize diversity, that would be awkward. And that’s why the lieutenant governor’s race is so fascinating – and perhaps so wide open.
There are six candidates – a record for any statewide primary field. Much of the Democratic establishment has rallied behind Del. Hala Ayala of Prince William. She’s a Black Latina, which would give Democrats both a woman and a person of color on a ticket with two white men. On the other hand, that would also give Democrats an all-Northern Virginia ticket, something that’s never been tried. The surprise of the season has been Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, who a) has energized a good portion of the progressive wing of the party, b) devoted far more time to organizing rural Virginia than Democrats typically do, securing the endorsements of former Attorney General Mary Sue Terry and former Rep. Rick Boucher in the process and c) leads the pack in fund-raising (Ayala is third). Rasoul has also dominated the news, although not always by his own choosing. A debate moderator singled him out to ask if, as a Muslim, he could represent all Virginians. That question seemed to backfire, and brought Rasoul several days worth of headlines. Will that also pay off at the polls? Democrats who hadn’t made up their minds now face this uncomfortable question – if they don’t vote for Rasoul, are they secretly giving in to some bigotry? Rasoul also indirectly benefits from Ayala’s last-minute flip-flop; she first pledged not to take utility money then accepted $100,000 from Dominion Energy, making it her second biggest donor. That’s prompted an anti-Ayala ad campaign from the Clean Virginia PAC.