“For some people, it’s, ‘Oh, you’re the first person to come to my door in forever,’ ” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, a liberal advocacy group that will have more than 100 paid staff and volunteers knocking on doors across the state for gubernatorial hopeful Jennifer L. McClellan this weekend. All have been vaccinated but planned to wear masks to put people at ease.
“The energy out there is really high,” she said. “Folks are pleasantly surprised when they get a door knock.”
Democratic voters will select their statewide candidates to go up against a Republican slate that was chosen by convention a month ago, setting the stage for what could be the most expensive Virginia gubernatorial election ever. At stake: Virginia’s recent status as a blue state, with Democrats controlling the executive and legislative branches for the past two years and passing a historic slate of liberal initiatives.
In addition to the statewide primary contests, voters will choose nominees in 27 House of Delegates races in various regions — most of them Democratic primaries that could test whether the party’s candidates shift further to the left.
Democrats and Republicans alike are charting a new path forward this year in the aftermath of four polarizing years of President Donald Trump’s administration. Virginia leads the way nationally as one of only two states — along with New Jersey — holding statewide elections, though California could also become a factor if the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) moves forward.
Tuesday’s primaries could provide the first clue of whether Virginia Democrats can maintain their recent momentum with Trump no longer in the White House as a foil.
“This . . . will give us some sense of Democratic enthusiasm,” said Rich Meagher, a political scientist at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. “If turnout is really anemic, it should give Democrats some concerns for the fall.”
Early voting got underway in late April. So far, more than 83,000 Virginians have cast ballots in person or by mail — a huge increase over the 26,575 early votes cast in the 2017 primaries, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
It’s tough to compare turnout directly, though, because Democrats last year enacted numerous policy changes to make early voting easier and more widely available.
Democrats will be choosing from an unusually broad set of candidates for all three statewide offices. Former governor Terry McAuliffe, who served from 2014 to 2018, is seeking to become only the second Virginia governor since the Civil War to win two terms. The state constitution prohibits any governor from serving consecutive terms.
The other candidates include two seeking to become the first Black woman elected governor of any state: McClellan, a state senator from Richmond, and former delegate Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (Prince William); Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second African American elected statewide in Virginia; and Del. Lee J. Carter (Manassas), a self-proclaimed socialist.
McAuliffe has led consistently in fundraising, endorsements and polling. A Roanoke College poll released Friday showed the former governor leading the field with support from 49 percent of likely primary voters.
The poll had Carroll Foy with 11 percent, McClellan with 9 percent, Fairfax with 5 percent and Carter with 1 percent of likely voters.
The contest has highlighted fractures within the Democratic Party, with some younger members insisting now is the time to nominate a woman of color for governor, while much of the leadership has lined up behind McAuliffe as a popular former governor who has stayed powerful within the party.
There have also been splits over the down-ticket candidates. While Gov. Ralph Northam and other top Democrats have endorsed Del. Hala S. Ayala (Prince William) for lieutenant governor, the revelation this week that she had accepted a $100,000 donation from Dominion Energy after earlier pledging not to take money from the utility giant caused at least one fellow legislator to switch his endorsement to one of her competitors, Del. Sam Rasoul (Roanoke).
But Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said he doubts intraparty conflict will last once nominees are selected.
“President Trump has been the most effective glue holding Virginia Democrats together for years, and his efforts to stay a central part of the conversation as a former president creates an environment where that glue will hold together any fractures within the party,” he said.
Most of the Democrats running for governor headed into the homestretch with plans to barnstorm the state, making the most of newly eased pandemic restrictions. Until recently, they’d been forced to campaign via Zoom, outdoors or behind face masks in small, in-person settings.
McAuliffe was making stops around the state — seven on Friday, then campaigning Saturday in Martinsville, Danville and, with Northam, three stops in Hampton Roads. On Monday he’ll hit Bristol, Roanoke, Richmond and Norfolk. Carroll Foy spoke Friday at a Muslim center in Sterling and planned to move on over the weekend to a Black Lives Matter event in Warrenton, canvasses in Arlington, Charlottesville and Richmond, and church services and door-knocking in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. She plans to launch a canvass in Alexandria on Monday.
McClellan had more than 15 in-person events planned, kicking off her last push with a rally Friday at a Henrico County recreation center and scheduled to head from there to Hampton Roads, the Middle Peninsula, Northern Virginia, Central Virginia and Charlottesville.
Fairfax started the weekend with two speeches Friday at the VFW in Norfolk and a rally in Hampton planned for Saturday.
Carter was the lone holdout amid the push for in-person campaigning. Concerned that it’s too soon to set aside coronavirus precautions for Virginia as a whole, and for his household in particular since he has an infant daughter who’s too young to be immunized, Carter was sticking with Zoom appearances. His campaign staff and volunteers remained in pandemic mode, too, said campaign manager Josh Stanfield.
“It’s an experiment in taking the pandemic seriously,” Stanfield said. “He will not allow any canvassers, any people at the polls. And I’ve also had to call off groups that want to canvass for him and divert them to text messaging. He doesn’t believe we’re at any measure of herd immunity.”
For lieutenant governor, Democrats will choose from six contenders: Rasoul; Ayala; Del. Mark H. Levine (Alexandria); Norfolk city councilwoman Andria McClellan; Sean Perryman, former head of the NAACP chapter in Fairfax County; and Arlington County businessman Xavier Warren.
The Roanoke College poll released Friday showed Herring leading that contest by 49 percent to 20 percent for Jones, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Roanoke declared the primary for lieutenant governor “up for grabs,” with Ayala leading Rasoul 16 percent to 11 percent, the rest of the field trailing and 45 percent still undecided.
Voters will also choose nominees Tuesday in several House of Delegates races, with all 100 seats on the ballot Nov. 2. A record 13 House Democrats — mostly in Northern Virginia — face primary challengers, more than triple the number two years ago. On the Republican side, only three House GOP members have primary challengers.
Many of the Democratic challengers contend the incumbents are not liberal enough for a party that has shifted leftward in recent years. Some of the incumbents seem puzzled by that claim given the sweeping Democratic goals achieved since the House and Senate turned blue two years ago, including a higher minimum wage, gun control, expanded access to voting, legalization of marijuana and the abolition of the death penalty.
Feeding that establishment-liberal rift have been rival big-money donors: Dominion Energy on one side and the environmental group Clean Virginia, founded by Charlottesville investor Michael Bills, on the other. Dominion has long been the state’s most prolific political donor, but in recent years, many Democrats have sworn off its donations in protest of the company’s outsize influence in Richmond.
Del. Stephen E. Heretick (D-Portsmouth), who has been in the House since 2016, received $90,000 from Dominion PAC in April and May and faces two primary challengers, Nadarius Clark and Dante Walston. Clark raised a combined $500,000 over the same period from Clean Virginia, its affiliated Commonwealth Forward PAC and Sonjia S. Smith, Bills’s wife.
A few Democratic delegates who opted to seek reelection to the House while also running for statewide office face challengers for their House seats. Those include Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman (Prince William), who dropped out of the lieutenant governor’s race and faces three challengers for renomination.