Virginia primary voters head to the polls on Tuesday to decide the Democratic nominees for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and state House of Delegates.
Whom they choose could determine Democrats’ ability to maintain control of every branch of the state government, the influence of the party’s progressive wing, and whether Virginia will witness a number of history-making identity milestones from candidates of color vying for top spots.
Below is a look at the races to watch.
Two Jennifers And The Return Of The ‘Macker’
Virginia governors are forbidden from serving out consecutive terms in office.
But when former Gov. Terry “The Macker” McAuliffe (D), became eligible for a second term, he jumped at the chance.
McAuliffe, who led the state from 2014 through 2017, endured criticism for entering the race months after state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy announced. Either of the two women would be Virginia’s first female governor and the nation’s first Black woman governor.
But thanks to his positive reputation, network of big-dollar donors and deep relationships with Black elected officials and community leaders, McAuliffe has established a massive lead that most poll watchers believe is insurmountable.
Carroll Foy, who cast herself as a clear progressive foil to McAuliffe, ran a well-funded, competitive campaign. Her support for repealing the state’s “right-to-work” law that makes it harder for unions to flourish won her the backing of several major unions. It likely also prompted McAuliffe to admit privately that he would sign a bill repealing “right-to-work” if it came to his desk.
In addition, McAuliffe’s responses as governor to police killings and other racial justice and civil liberties issues have undergone scrutiny. McAuliffe and his allies point to his restoration of voting rights to 173,000 ex-felons, which disproportionately helped Black residents, and his plan to close racial disparities, as evidence of his commitments.
If Carroll Foy pulls off an upset victory, progressives will rejoice at the opportunity to transform Virginia from a light-blue state to a true, liberal stronghold. At the same time, Republicans will likely proclaim their good fortune at the chance to run against a more left-leaning standard bearer. Moderate Democrats are also sure to wring their hands at the prospect of a more difficult general election.
A McAuliffe win, by contrast, shows the enduring power of name recognition, electability and mainstream policy-making in a state where college-educated suburbanites and older and more moderate Black voters dominate the Democratic coalition. He promises to pass a more ambitious progressive agenda than was possible during his first term when Republicans controlled the legislature.
The winner of Tuesday’s contest faces private equity executive Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee, in November.
Second Spot’s The Charm For Progressives
Although polling is not promising for the activist left’s favored gubernatorial candidates, the progressive choice for lieutenant governor, Del. Sam Rasoul, still has a fighting shot.
Rasoul, a management consultant from Roanoke endorsed by an ideologically diverse array of validators from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to The Washington Post editorial board, is running on a progressive populist platform of implementing an “intersectional Green New Deal” and curbing the influence of corporate money on state politics.
Rasoul’s most formidable opponent is Del. Hala Ayala, a cybersecurity specialist from Prince William County backed by some of the state’s highest-ranking Democrats. She is endorsed by Gov. Ralph Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring.
Both Rasoul and Ayala would make history if elected. Rasoul would be Virginia’s first Muslim lieutenant governor and one of the country’s highest-ranking Palestinian Americans. Ayala, who is Afro-Latina and part Lebanese, would be the state’s first nonwhite woman in the No. 2 spot.
When it comes to personal backgrounds though, Rasoul’s identity got more attention, thanks to an Islamophobic debate question that backfired on the moderator. The moderator asked Rasoul, whose biggest individual donors are Muslims, how he could assure Virginians that he would serve all of them regardless of their faith. The question, which Rasoul answered with ease, prompted an outpouring of support for Rasoul. The TV network hosting the debate apologized and numerous Democrats, including Ayala, condemned the question.
Ayala led Raosul in the most recent public poll in the race. But she also lost an endorsement after taking $100,000 from Dominion Energy despite pledging not to accept contributions from the state’s powerful electric monopolies. Rasoul, by contrast, is an avowed antitrust crusader and adversary of Dominion.
Third Term For Herring Or A ‘New Voice’
When Northam admitted in February 2019 to wearing blackface 25 years earlier, it plunged Virginia officialdom into a cloud of scandal that spared none of the state’s top three Democrats.
As pressure mounted on Northam to resign — which would have resulted in Fairfax’s promotion to governor — two women came forward to accuse Fairfax of sexual assault.
Fearing that his own secrets would surface involuntarily, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s.
Now Herring, a dry public speaker seeking a third term as the state’s top law enforcement official, faces a challenge from a young Black lawmaker, Del. Jay Jones.
Jones is nominally running to Herring’s left, but the primary is really about Herring’s character and whether voters are hungry for a “new voice for a new Virginia decade,” as Jones bills himself.
Jones has accused Herring of showing “no empathy” in his apology for using blackface and has suggested that Herring’s professed commitment to combating police misconduct is politically opportunistic. He has also promised to take a tougher line with Virginia’s electric utility companies, though the attorney general’s office has limited power over them.
Although Herring is the establishment favorite, Northam surprised some analysts by endorsing Jones in March.
The latest poll shows Herring with a 20-point lead, though Jones is in a more competitive position than McAuliffe’s opponents in the gubernatorial primary.
Monopoly Power On Trial In The State House
The Democratic nomination is up for grabs in a number of state House seats on Tuesday.
Only a handful of them are both competitive and stand a chance of meaningfully altering the ideological makeup of Virginia’s House Democratic Caucus.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, an ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and one of the state House’s only Latino members, withdrew from the race for lieutenant governor in April. She is now defending her seat against three candidates who announced their runs when they thought they would be competing for an open seat.
The most formidable of these candidates is Rod Hall. Hall, a former congressional aide who now works at one of Washington’s largest lobbying firms, is backed by a number of Black Virginia lawmakers and national groups.
Hall, who is running as an advocate for better mass transit, has the profile of a mainstream Democrat. If he replaced Guzman, who is an outspoken critic of corporate power, he would tilt the balance of power in the caucus slightly to the center.
In Virginia’s 2nd House District, Del. Candi King won a special election in January to fill the seat vacated by Carroll Foy. Attorney Pamela Montgomery is challenging her from the left with the support of some progressives who see Montgomery as a truer heir to Carroll Foy’s legacy as a civil rights and economic justice advocate.
The common thread in all three races is that the more left-leaning candidates are advocates of a tougher line with Dominion Energy and the state’s electric utility monopolies. A certain segment of economic progressives in Virginia have made curbing the utility companies’ influence in the legislature both an urgent anti-corruption priority and a prerequisite to turning the tide on climate change.
Clean Virginia, a nonprofit funded by Charlottesville hedge fund manager Michael Bills to fight Dominion and promote renewable energy, has endorsed Clark, Montgomery and Guzman.
The independent spending group Commonwealth Forward, which is mostly funded by Clean Virginia, is also spending $500,000 to boost the campaigns of those three candidates.