"I've been in the minority party my entire time in the General Assembly, and even though we made historic gains last year, I keep seeing bills that a majority of Virginians care about dying in party-line votes in committees," she said in an interview Monday, referring to legislation to promote solar power, tighten gun control, and outlaw discrimination against gay people in housing and public employment. "I just feel like I need to step up and do all I can to help make that happen."
McClellan's announcement comes at a time when the closely divided state House and Senate appear to be up for grabs in November. It's also a moment when the two leading Democrats long expected to vie for the gubernatorial nomination in 2021, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, are mired in separate scandals.
Fairfax is accused by two women of sexual assault in the early 2000s, which he denies, and Herring has admitted to wearing blackface at a party when he was a college student.
Some Democrats say their scandals, rooted in race and sexual assault, have created an opportunity for McClellan or another black woman to emerge as a nominee for governor, attorney general or lieutenant governor.
Only one woman has ever been elected statewide in Virginia: Mary Sue Terry as attorney general in 1985, and she is white.
McClellan and Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) have both said they are considering statewide runs. Carroll Foy, a freshman delegate, has not yet created a PAC.
McClellan's Virginia United is a "leadership PAC," which high-profile politicians typically create to support other candidates and boost their own prospects.
"Leadership PACs are designed for two things: to make money and to make friends, both of which are crucial to ambitious politicians looking to advance their careers," as the Center for Responsive Politics puts it.
Sometimes legislators create leadership PACs to gain more influence in the General Assembly, but McClellan seems to be positioning herself for a run for governor, said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst.
"She certainly has to be considering a statewide run, probably a run for governor, given what has befallen the other two statewide candidates who have an interest in running for governor," he said. "McClellan increasingly looks like a very appealing alternative."
Fairfax and Herring were swept up in separate scandals in early February, as was Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who admitted to wearing blackface for a dance contest in 1984 and whose medical school yearbook page that same year included a racist photo.
All three remain in office. Since the state constitution prohibits the governor from serving back-to-back terms, Northam cannot run in 2021. Before the scandals broke, Herring announced plans to run for governor, and Fairfax was widely expected to do so. Neither has ruled out a run, but public opinion polls show that both men have lost ground with voters.
State Sen. T. Montgomery "Monty" Mason (D-Williamsburg) said the new PAC was promising for Democrats, both in terms of fundraising and McLellan's statewide aspirations. He recalled a middle school girl telling him recently that she wanted to become Virginia's first female governor.
"I said, 'My friend Jennifer McClellan just might beat you to it,' " Mason recalled telling her. " 'You need to move fast.' "
McClellan, 46, has been considered a rising Democratic star since she entered the legislature as a delegate in 2006. She won a Senate seat in a 2017 special election. A Verizon corporate lawyer, she has not discouraged speculation about her future but has always said the time was not right for a statewide run.
In an interview Monday, McClellan sidestepped questions about whether the formation of the PAC signals a plan to run for higher office.
Virginia is one of just four states with legislative races this year — and the only one considered competitive because Republicans control the House and Senate by just a few seats apiece.