Elections

McAuliffe Has the Democratic Primary Locked Up in Virginia’s Gubernatorial Race

Then-Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe arrives at the election night rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam in Fairfax, Va., November 7, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
The former governor has a substantial edge over his competitors in both name recognition and fundraising.

Each year following a presidential-election contest, two states host a gubernatorial race: Virginia and New Jersey. In Virginia, several Democratic candidates are preparing to square off in tomorrow’s primary election, fighting for the chance to face Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, who has already secured the GOP nomination.

Youngkin is a long-time businessman who early last month defeated six other GOP primary candidates in the Republican convention. This election cycle, the party chose to host a convention rather than a traditional primary, likely an effort to avoid the past mistake of ending up with a divisive candidate chosen by a plurality of the state’s most invested Republicans.

On May 8, about 54,000 Virginia delegates for the state Republican Party cast their ballots using ranked-choice voting, and after six rounds of counting, Youngkin won the nomination with 55 percent of the vote.

On the Democratic side, current Virginia governor Ralph Northam is ineligible to run for reelection due to the state’s prohibition on governors serving two consecutive terms. But there is one big-name contender on the ballot: former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, who preceded Northam and served from 2014 to 2018.

Due to his high name recognition, McAuliffe has a substantial edge in tomorrow’s primary field. A Roanoke College poll published last Friday showed that almost half of likely Democratic-primary voters said they would vote for McAuliffe, while about 25 percent remained undecided. The poll surveyed about 600 likely voters during the last week of May, and the results lined up with what surveys from April indicated.

As of mid April, McAuliffe’s campaign had raised $4.2 million in the first quarter of this year and ended the quarter with $8.5 million cash on hand, which was more than the combined war chests of his many opponents in the primary.

In addition to McAuliffe, there are several state-level politicians competing. The two most financially successful campaigns are those of former state delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and current state senator Jennifer McClellan. Prior to her term in the Virginia state senate, McClellan spent ten years in the House of Delegates.

According to the Roanoke College survey, Carroll Foy trails McAuliffe among likely voters with just 11 percent support, almost 40 percent behind the frontrunner. McClellan comes in third with 9 percent support.

Also running are current lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, whose campaign has been dogged by 2019 rape allegations, and current state delegate Lee Carter, who describes himself as a democratic socialist. Though he has gained little traction in the state-wide race, during his 2019 reelection campaign for the House of Delegates, Carter received the endorsement of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who campaigned with Carter ahead of the election.

It’s little surprise that McAuliffe has received the most noteworthy endorsements ahead of the primary, including from the Washington Post and Hillary Clinton, who, along with her husband, has been a longtime political ally of McAuliffe’s. In fact, while serving as governor, McAuliffe was the subject of an investigation by the FBI and Department of Justice, in part related to allegedly having accepted improper donations to his 2013 gubernatorial campaign. As part of the inquiry, investigators scrutinized McAuliffe’s doings during his stint on the board of the Clinton Global Initiative.

McAuliffe also outranks his primary competitors when it comes to endorsements from within Virginia’s state government. For one thing, he’s been endorsed by Northam, who was McAuliffe’s own lieutenant governor. He’s also secured the support of three dozen members of the Virginia General Assembly. By contrast, McClellan’s been endorsed by just one dozen members and Carroll Foy by only four.

Due to his previous stint as governor, McAuliffe will almost certainly have a sizeable advantage over Youngkin if he does secure the Democratic nomination, however, the race isn’t entirely locked up. As one elections expert noted at FiveThirtyEight, “The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all rate Virginia as more competitive than New Jersey.”

And while it’s been a little more than a decade since a Republican candidate has won statewide office in Virginia, the state does have a documented tendency to elect a governor from the opposite party of whomever occupies the White House. Case in point: When McAuliffe won in 2013, he was the first candidate in 40 years to become Virginia governor as a member of the same party as the president.

While pundits at the national level might try to make this race out to be a test of the Republican Party’s appeal in Virginia following Donald Trump’s presidency, its outcome will say more about voters’ opinions of the early Biden administration and about how dramatically changing demographics have altered the political makeup of the state.

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