The 2021 Virginia governor’s race is a fitting after-party for the presidential election. Its familiar plotlines will test the fatigue level of voters in a newly blue state with a strong red tradition: the fight for GOP identity, post-Donald Trump; the tension among Democrats between familiar leadership and candidates of color offering something new; both sides battling for the suburbs — all against the backdrop of a coronavirus pandemic that could provide an early test of President Biden and Democratic leadership.
“What’s clear about 2021 in Virginia is that almost everybody sees an opportunity,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “The left, the right and the center are all thinking, ‘This is going to be the year.’ ”
Traditionally, the Virginia governor’s race is a barometer for national trends — a “harbinger of what’s to come for the first midterm election of a new presidential administration,” said Cook Political Report analyst Jessica Taylor.
In every post-presidential election year but one, the party that won the White House has lost the election for Virginia governor. That should favor the GOP this time around — except Republicans haven’t won statewide in Virginia since 2009.
Democrats extended their winning streak during Trump’s presidency, retaining not only the governor’s mansion but also two U.S. Senate seats, flipping three congressional seats and taking control of the state House and Senate.
But there are X-factors this year, such as whether the absence of Trump in the White House will dampen voter turnout, which hit historic highs in Virginia in 2020. Another variable: whether public schools are open and the vaccine widely distributed by the fall, topics that Republicans have begun pushing hard in Virginia and elsewhere.
New Jersey is the only other state with a governor’s race this year, but the Democratic incumbent is so heavily favored there that Virginia is the race to watch, Taylor said.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), like all Virginia governors, is prohibited by the state constitution from serving a second, consecutive term. His handling of the pandemic will set the stage for whether a Democrat is likely to succeed him, but Northam has not groomed an heir apparent.
The Democratic nominee will be chosen in a primary election June 8, and campaigning has begun unusually early. Former governor Terry McAuliffe, who left office in 2018, heads the crowded Democratic field but his presence has frustrated some on the left, who think the time is right for a woman or person of color to take the reins.
The Republican race is in full swing and wholly unpredictable, with no clear front-runner among the six hopefuls: state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield); Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), a former House speaker; retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña; former think tank executive Peter Doran; businessman Pete Snyder; and former hedge fund executive Glenn Youngkin. Youngkin and Snyder have already been airing statewide TV ads, six-figure buys typically unheard of before spring.
Party leaders plan to choose their candidate at a convention May 1, but the nomination method itself is in chaos. If bitterly divided GOP leaders can’t agree to a convention format, a few dozen party insiders could end up choosing the nominee.
“They not only have an identity crisis,” veteran Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth said of Republicans, “they can’t even agree how to take the next step.”
In Trump's shadow
No factor looms larger for Republican contenders than the shadow of Trump. Some think the answer is to move away from Trumpism and the divisive cultural issues that have long turned off moderate suburbanites.
But GOP gubernatorial hopefuls are in a bind: While Trump is toxic to the suburban swing voters essential for winning a general election, he remains highly popular with the red base that will choose the party’s nominee.
With no clear road map, the contenders are taking a variety of approaches.
Chase is all in. Her stars-and-stripes handbag, fondness for weapons and penchant for provocative statements fuel her self-anointed status as “Trump in heels.” On a bipartisan vote, the state Senate took the rare step of censuring her after she praised the people who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as “patriots.”
Cox, by contrast, is casting himself as a pragmatic conservative, more concerned with “kitchen-table issues” than ideological ones. The devout, understated former House speaker has the studious bearing of a high school civics teacher — which he was for decades. He has tried to lighten up his image a bit recently by reviewing local hot dog joints along the campaign trail.
But his voting record is not that different from Chase’s. Both oppose same-sex marriage, and both boast an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.
Cox swerved away from his party, though, when he compromised with Democrats to expand Medicaid — a position that might endear him to swing voters but could cost him with the GOP base.
The other four candidates have no voting records to defend since they’ve never held public office.
Snyder is a pioneer in social media marketing who sought his party’s nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013, losing to Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson. The establishment favorite then, Snyder now touts endorsements from hard-right figures such as Jackson and former state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. A multimillionaire, he has the ability and willingness to self-fund.
Youngkin is the former co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group, a global private equity giant. Worth an estimated $254 million, the political newcomer highlights his up-by-the-bootstraps biography, including a stint in his teens washing dishes at a Virginia Beach diner to help support his family.
Doran is the former president of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, where he says he helped former Soviet bloc countries rebuild after “the ravages of socialism.” He’s promising to phase out the state’s income tax.
De la Peña, a retired Army colonel, was born into poverty in Mexico and rose to a Pentagon post under Trump as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs.
As of Dec. 31, Cox had about $691,000 cash on hand and Chase had about $235,000, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). The other Republicans entered the race too late for the most recent reporting deadline. Youngkin, however, announced that he had raised $1 million from supporters in the first 10 days of his campaign.
All of the Republicans are calling for schools and businesses to fully reopen from pandemic shutdowns. With varying levels of rhetorical heat, they describe unchecked Democratic control in Richmond as a threat — to civil liberties, economic prosperity and, according to some contenders, capitalism itself.
The dilemma facing all the GOP hopefuls is perhaps clearest when it comes to Trump’s baseless claims that widespread election fraud cost him reelection. Of the six GOP candidates, only Cox has directly said that Biden legitimately won the presidency, doing so after the electoral college voted in mid-December.
Youngkin has been stressing the need for greater ballot security on the campaign trail and this month sent out a text message inviting “concerned, law-abiding citizens” to join him in forming an “election integrity task force.”
Asked at a campaign appearance in Lynchburg this month if that policy focus stems from a belief that Biden stole the election, Youngkin answered, “No.” But he declined to say if he believes Biden was legitimately elected.
Doran has taken a similar tack, playing up the need for greater “voter integrity.” Asked if he thought Biden had been legitimately elected, he answered, “Yeah,” but added, “I haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me that Joe Biden wasn’t properly elected. Is that saying that nothing happened? I don’t know.”
De la Peña avoided answering the question, replying via email that “we may never know how much fraud occurred” because of “hasty and illegal changes” of voter laws.
Snyder repeatedly declined to say whether Trump or Biden had won the White House in an interview on Jan. 6 before the riot at the Capitol. He later denounced the violence but announced that he had tapped Cuccinelli to lead a “ballot security operation” meant to ensure the governor’s race is not stolen from him.
Chase has gone the furthest, asserting she had been in touch with Trump lawyer Sidney Powell about purported election fraud in Virginia. She also called on Trump to declare martial law to prevent his removal from office.
Democrats see the race as a chance to build on historic changes that were turbocharged during Trump’s term in office.
In 2017, Democrats made unexpected gains in the House of Delegates with candidates who were predominantly women and minorities, prefiguring the national trend of more diverse candidate pools.
Two years later, Democrats added to those wins to take control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation. They installed the first woman as speaker in the House’s 400-year history and, in partnership with Northam, began passing laws that recast the state’s stance on issues such as gun control, gender equality and criminal justice.
A slate of candidates for governor took shape that reflected those trends. Fairfax, who was only the second African American elected statewide in Virginia when he became lieutenant governor, is seeking to become the state’s second Black governor, after L. Douglas Wilder (D).
McClellan and Carroll Foy are both seeking to become the first Black woman elected governor of any state.
Carter, who considers himself a socialist, aims to push the state further to the left with an aggressively liberal, pro-worker agenda.
McAuliffe’s entry into the race angered some younger Democratic activists, who said it was time for new faces to rise to power.
“Virginia has been doing a really incredible job of redefining what it is to be a Southern state . . . and we have the opportunity to do that again this year, to be the first Southern state to elect a Black woman governor,” said one liberal lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating fellow Democrats.
But McAuliffe has attracted endorsements from many in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. He also continued to raise stupendous amounts of money for other Democrats after leaving office, helping them win in 2019 elections.
“It reminds me a lot of the 2020 presidential field,” Taylor, the Cook Political Report analyst, said. “Someone who is experienced and older — and White — coming in saying now is the time for steady leadership.”
With position papers on everything from food insecurity to the housing crisis and pandemic response, McAuliffe insists that he’s not running to preserve a status quo. People familiar with his thinking say McAuliffe craves the chance to work with a Democratic legislature.
His fundraising has eclipsed all his Democratic and Republican rivals combined, totaling nearly $6 million since last year. Carroll Foy is next at almost $1.9 million, with McClellan raising about $1.1 million, according to the VPAP.
But one Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss party thinking, said there’s at least one way McAuliffe’s fundraising advantage could dwindle: if big national donors see a chance to back the next Stacey Abrams, a Black woman with a shot at winning the state’s top job.
So far, Carroll Foy has been most aggressive about seeking that role. Slightly more than half of her money is from out of state, while McAuliffe’s haul is roughly evenly split between in-state and out, according to a VPAP analysis. More than 80 percent of McClellan’s money is from Virginia, the VPAP found.
Carroll Foy stepped down from her seat in the House of Delegates to campaign full time and has been effective at getting her name into the national and Washington media — from a recent interview in Elle magazine about a health scare after campaigning while pregnant with twins to a favorable Politico piece about her internal polling numbers.
A former public defender who has been outspoken about her experience as a Black female cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, Carroll Foy has also taken sharp jabs at McAuliffe. She drew scorn from other Democrats, for instance, after implying in a tweet that McAuliffe was corrupt because the FBI looked into his campaign finances in 2016.
McClellan is also fighting to stand out from the pack. A corporate lawyer, she has long been groomed for bigger things in Richmond, with connections throughout the state party apparatus.
Steady and cerebral, McClellan has taken a different tack than the more high-octane Carroll Foy, opting to keep her seat in the legislature and highlight her work on significant legislation, such as sponsoring the first Voting Rights Act to be approved by a Southern state.
McClellan has also lashed out at McAuliffe, accusing him of imitating her plans for a multibillion-dollar investment in education. He hasn’t responded.
Fairfax and Carter, meanwhile, significantly trail the others in fundraising. Carter reported no funds in the most recent campaign finance filing, while Fairfax had about $200,000, according to the VPAP.
Carter’s showing is perhaps not surprising — he presents himself as an iconoclast in fiery Bernie Sanders style, more about message than money. Carter used social media to chronicle his role in racial justice protests last summer, including being pepper-sprayed. His campaign staff has become the first in Virginia to unionize.
But Fairfax might have been the front-runner by virtue of his position as lieutenant governor if not for the scandal that knocked his career off track in 2019. Two women came forward and accused him of separate incidents of sexual assault from the early 2000s. Fairfax, a former federal prosecutor, has repeatedly denied the charges and called for law enforcement to investigate. Lawyers for both women have said they would rather participate in legislative hearings, a prospect Fairfax’s team has called a “show trial.”
All of the Democrats are running on common themes, but they calibrate their messages based on how thoroughly they think Virginia has shifted to blue.
McAuliffe promises to “Go Big, Be Bold,” and has pledged to refuse campaign money from Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility whose political influence has become a major target of the left in Virginia. But the former governor also touts his economic acumen, promising to partner with businesses and invest in building jobs.
Carroll Foy’s campaign seems impatient for change — “Virginia Can’t Wait” — and she emphasizes her willingness to “fight” for the downtrodden or against big polluters. McClellan casts the race in terms of history, arguing experience and “compassionate” leadership are needed to steer the state through its evolution.
Fairfax touts his family’s legacy of being freed from bondage in the late 1700s to highlight the need for social equity. And Carter sees Virginia as irrevocably blue: He wants to end the state’s right-to-work law, which limits organized labor, and reduce funding for police.
Whatever message winds up resonating with the party’s voters during primary season, the election this fall is likely to turn on practical matters — whether people can go back to work and kids can go back to school, Taylor said.
Ultimately, the outcome will test whether the tight suburban districts that pushed Democrats over the top have really moved on from their conservative roots.
“Do the swing voters — suburban women — stay with the Democratic Party, or do they go back to where they were before Trump?” the Democratic strategist said. “Everything is on a razor’s edge.”
Correction: A previous photo accompanying this article referred to the governor’s mansion but pictured the state Capitol.