The election-weary commonwealth can soon look forward to a return to campaign season, with a growing field of candidates vying in statewide contests that are nearly a year away. Although official qualifying does not open until January, several candidates have announced their intention to run for governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general, and speculation is increasing across Virginia about would-be contenders.
The political showdowns in Virginia could draw national attention — and dollars — since few other compelling campaigns are on the ballot in an odd-year election.
“It’s become a big election that is not only important to Virginia, but it’s seen as an initial bellwether for what’s going to happen the following year at the national level . . . even more so, given our continuing status as a battleground,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst and former professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Politics is also sure to loom large over the upcoming General Assembly. Lawmakers will be eager to hit the campaign trail, as the entire House of Delegates is up for reelection and members are not allowed to stump for votes until the end of session.
The election also could factor into the legislative agenda, Holsworth said.
“On one hand, you have some of these Virginia-based issues that are critically important to the state that are emerging,” he said, citing transportation and the possible privatization of the Port of Virginia as examples. “Simultaneously, given the national election, how do Republicans deal with social issues? And with the House up for reelection . . . how do they use the session in order to advance their interests and priorities?”
The early fight in Virginia next year will be among Republicans, with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II headlining the showdown to be the party’s gubernatorial nominee. The matchup features an establishment candidate — Bolling — versus a tea party favorite — Cuccinelli — and illustrates the larger battle for control within the GOP.
Among the more colorful candidates expected to join the race is reality show star and vintner Tareq Salahi, who announced earlier this year that he planned to run as a Republican. A limousine advertising Salahi’s candidacy has been spotted in the District in recent weeks.
Republicans will not choose their candidate through an open primary but at their state convention, which is closed — creating a different dynamic for campaigning.
“Right now, they’re going to have to be preparing . . . that has to be in full swing,” Holsworth said. “This is trench warfare, on the ground. . . . That election has started.”
On the Democratic side, McAuliffe, a former chairman of the party’s national committee, is the only potential gubernatorial candidate who has made his intentions known. But Sen. Mark R. Warner, a former governor, has been flirting with a bid to return to the Capitol, and recent polling suggests he would be a favorite to win next fall should he decide to run.
Warner has said he will announce his plans before Thanksgiving. Absent Warner, McAuliffe would seem to have a clear path to the Democratic nomination but must still win over a broader electorate to succeed where he failed in 2009.
“One of his biggest challenges remains convincing a majority of Virginians that he is a Virginian first and not a national guy who happens to live in Virginia,” said Holsworth, who added that McAuliffe has been working to address those concerns since his loss three years ago.
Only Virginia and New Jersey hold gubernatorial races in odd years. As a result, both states can expect well-funded elections not unlike what happened in this year’s Virginia Senate race, which attracted more outside money from anonymous donors than any aside from the presidential race. Given their national profiles, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe would be able to draw on connections to drum up out-of-state backers.
And in Virginia, there are no limits on who can donate to campaigns — or how much they can give — in statewide races, so the number of in-state donors also is likely to increase.
“At one time, Virginians wanted to ensure that we held elections on off years because we didn’t want to be contaminated by the national mood,” Holsworth said. “Ironically, now the entire attention of the national political insiders focuses on Virginia. The attention, the visibility, the money. . . . It all goes up.”