Virginia Democrats hold gubernatorial race primary: Will it be back to the future?

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Familiarity and electability will likely win out in Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia.

Thanks in part to his massive advantage in name recognition and fundraising, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to capture his party’s nomination against four lesser- known rivals.

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McAuliffe, who was elected governor in 2013, was barred from running for reelection by Virginia’s unique law that prevents governors from serving consecutive terms.

McAuliffe, who is aiming to become the first Virginia governor in nearly half a century to be elected to multiple terms, spotlighted his electability, tweeting on the eve of the primary that “the stakes in this race couldn’t be higher. I know how to defeat Republican extremists like Glenn Youngkin. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.”

Youngkin, a former private equity CEO, secured the Republican nomination during last month’s state GOP convention and has been shelling out big bucks – he’s already loaned his campaign $12 million – to run TV commercials the past month taking aim at the Democrats.

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As the Democratic Party as a whole becomes more progressive and diverse, the 64-year old McAuliffe, who is White, is anything but a fresh face.

McAuliffe, a longtime close friend and adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, served as Democratic National Committee chair from 2001-2005 and later chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2008 unsuccessful presidential campaign. He first ran for Virginia governor in 2009, losing a primary bid before his successful campaign four years later. McAuliffe two years ago flirted with a run for the Democratic presidential nomination but ended up backing now-President Biden.

Two of the other major rivals on the ballot – state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former state Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy – are trying to make history as the nation’s first female Black governor and Virginia’s first woman to serve as governor. And Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, if elected, would become the commonwealth’s second Black governor. But Fairfax, once a rising star in the party, took a serious political hit in 2019 after allegations of rape surfaced.

Harry Wilson, senior political analyst of the Roanoke College Poll, emphasized that “McAuliffe built bridges to the African American community during his four years as governor and those folks have not forgotten that.”

When he launched his campaign in early December, McAuliffe was joined at his kickoff event in Richmond by his three campaign co-chairs: Virginia Senate President Pro-Tempore L. Louise Lucas, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who are all Black. And during his campaign, McAuliffe has touted his move as governor to restore the voting rights of more than 150,000 convicted felons, including many Black Virginians.

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McClellan and especially Foy have positioned themselves to the left of McAuliffe.

“Virginians deserve a governor who has walked in their shoes and understand the challenges that Virginia families face,” Foy told Fox News on Monday.

“I can tell you that as a Virginia Military Institute graduate, being one of the first women to ever graduate from one of the top military colleges in this country, as a public defender, helping people navigate a broken criminal justice system, as a foster mom for eight years and a community organizer and a state legislator passing bills and budgets to uplift working families, that Virginians are ready for an inspiring candidate, someone who will stand shoulder to shoulder with them,” Foy emphasized.

State delegate Lee Carter, who’s also considered one of the major Democratic contenders and who’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is also running to McAuliffe’s left but has failed to attract much attention.

Virginia has moved to the left since McAuliffe’s term as governor – thanks in part to the Democrats winning the majority in both chambers of the state legislature two years ago. It became the first southern state to get rid of the death penalty and legalize marijuana.

But while more moderate than many of his rivals, McAuliffe’s running a center-left campaign as he spotlights his push to invest in education and build a fairer and cleaner economy.

“He may well be more of an establishment candidate, but he was a popular governor who’s extremely well connected within the Democratic Party,” Wilson noted.

Larry Sabato, the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said, “McAuliffe, as a former governor and somebody who’s seen as knowing how to raise money and do all the other things you have to do to win, is a substantial favorite.”

But Sabato, one of the leading nonpartisan political handicappers in the nation, told Fox News that “as we all learned in the past decade, there’s a lot of room for upsets.”

Whoever wins Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary will be considered the favorite in November’s general election. Virginia, once a top political battleground, has shifted blue over the past decade, and it’s been a dozen years since Republicans won a statewide election in the commonwealth.

Current Gov. Ralph Northam, who was McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor at the time, won the 2017 gubernatorial election by nine points over Republican Ed Gillespie. And Biden topped then-President Trump by 10 points to carry Virginia in last November’s presidential election.

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Republicans are hoping that Virginia voters follow their tendency to elect a governor from the party that didn’t win the White House in the previous year’s presidential election. And Democrats are hoping that their nominee will do what McAuliffe accomplished in 2013, when he became the first candidate in 40 years from the president’s party to win election as governor in Virginia.

Since Virginia is the only state the nation other than New Jersey to hold a gubernatorial contest in the year after a presidential election, the race will grab outsized national attention.

Fox News’ James Levinson contributed to this report.

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