And it will put Virginia in rare company among the rest of the nation, where just six Black women, three Latinas and three Asian Pacific Islander women have been elected as lieutenant governor, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
No Black women have been elected governor, while nationwide, one Asian woman and two Latinas have served in that position.
In Virginia, both sides are looking to energize voters around their lieutenant governor nominees in an election featuring two White men at the top of the ticket — former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin. The second-highest elected position in the commonwealth has often been a steppingstone for a later run for governor.
“Virginia has never had a woman of color serve in statewide office and I would be honored to make history and serve the Commonwealth, but this election is about so much more than that,” Ayala said in a statement Wednesday, going on to outline her agenda: affordable health care, jobs and education. Sears could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
For both women, the moment has been in the making for decades.
It began in 1985, when L. Douglas Wilder was elected lieutenant governor to become the first African American to hold a statewide office in Virginia, before later becoming governor.
That same year, former attorney general Mary Sue Terry (D) became the first woman to hold a statewide office in Virginia.
Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, said the historically diverse slate of candidates this year — on both sides of the aisle — built on the successes of Wilder and Terry decades ago.
“When you look at the list of candidates that Democrats ran and, to some extent, Republicans, the level of diversity in these tickets is phenomenal and would be unrecognizable to Virginia 30 years ago,” Kidd said. “However, there was a recognition when Mary Sue Terry and Doug Wilder were on the ticket that there was a change in Virginia, even if the magnitude of that change wasn’t fully appreciated and understood.”
Still, Virginia has a long way to go in its leaders reflecting its population, which is increasingly diverse. And the state is 28th out of 50 for women’s representation in its state legislature, according to the Rutgers center.
In the years since Wilder and Terry were in office, Virginia saw mostly White males holding the top three offices in the state.
But more barriers began to be broken, especially after the 2017 elections that saw several women — including Ayala — join the General Assembly in a tide of Democratic victories that led to the party’s current majority.
In 2019, House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) became the first woman and first Jewish person to serve in that role.
Ayala and Sears have both emphasized the significance of their presence on their party’s ticket throughout their campaigns.
Ayala has highlighted her past struggles as a young mother seeking health insurance for her son and the death of her Salvadoran-born father to gun violence when she was a child — experiences that have informed her advocacy for increasing health-care access to low-income Virginians and for gun-safety measures.
Sears — who was born in Jamaica and in 2001 became the first Black Republican woman to be elected to the General Assembly — contends that many people of color share her views on protecting gun owners’ rights, allowing public funds to be used for private or charter school vouchers, and keeping instruction about the country’s struggles with racism out of the classroom.
“I know how to appeal to people who want change,” she said in a recent interview with The Washington Post, referring to people of color who, she says, are conservative but “don’t know yet that they are Republican. They want to be represented.”
Such arguments from both candidates may resonate with voters who want their representatives in government to better reflect their own life experiences, said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Rutgers center.
“The priorities change when you have more women, more people of color, who are in tune with the demands and diverse needs of diverse communities,” she said.
“It does matter that individuals see women and women of color at high levels of leadership,” Dittmar said. “It may make those institutions that have been so dominated by White men to appear more inclusive and more accessible to those who want to run themselves.”
Some liberal Democrats in Virginia — including former governor Wilder — were disappointed by the outcome of Tuesday’s Democratic primary, hoping to see Black candidates win elsewhere on the ticket.
Kidd said the Ayala and Sears nominations show that those advancements are just a matter of time.
“At some point, this has to rise to the governor’s office,” he said.