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Opinion Virginia voters face a new election season, and it starts today

Tariq Ullah, 24, and Maryam Cattaneo, 23, have just cast their ballots at Lake Anne Community Center in Reston on Nov. 3. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Mark J. Rozell is the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, where he holds the Ruth D. and John T. Hazel Chair in Public Policy. He is co-author ofFederalism: A Very Short Introduction.”

The polls closed last night across Virginia in arguably the meanest, most expensive and most worrisome presidential election in modern history, capping a nightmarish year that opened with a presidential impeachment and went downhill from there — a deadly pandemic, a weakened economy, deep unemployment and racial unrest not seen since the late 1960s.

In Virginia, there will be no rest for the weary because, once the presidential race is settled, a brand-new election season starts immediately. Every fall there is a general election in the Old Dominion, and the next one — a year from now — is for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Already, more than a dozen candidates — unknowns, household names and everything in between — from both parties have manifested varying degrees of interest in seeking a four-year lease on the Executive Mansion in Richmond.

It’s the largest, most diverse early field in modern Virginia history, whether considered by gender, by race or by the wide swath of the political spectrum it encompasses. That doesn’t include the burgeoning field of candidates for the other two 2021 statewide races.

For the first time, Black women are in the running for governor: state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William). Former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) is interested in becoming the first two-term governor since Mills Godwin last did it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) is looking for a promotion.

The Republican field features state State Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield), a populist pro-Trump state senator censured by her own party, and Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), a genial retired teacher and former House of Delegates speaker. Bill Carrico, a former state senator and state trooper from Southwest Virginia, has voiced interest. U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner who lost the GOP nomination for a second term from Virginia’s 5th District to a religious conservative, is exploring a run — possibly as an independent.

One factor that will exert enormous — perhaps decisive — gravity on Virginia’s election next fall is the outcome of the election just completed. Virginia’s gubernatorial races are hotly contested and closely studied by both parties as an early barometer for the off-year congressional races one year later, and even the presidential race still three years over the horizon.

Virginia may be for lovers, but five decades of history show that new presidents have fleeting honeymoons here. Only once since 1976 has Virginia elected a governor of the same party as the president elected the preceding year. It happened in 2013, the year President Barack Obama (D) began his second term, when McAuliffe benefited from a GOP ticket seen as rigidly conservative and a scandal that was enveloping then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s (R) administration. And even with that tail wind, McAuliffe eked out a 60,000-vote (2.5 percentage points) victory over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in a three-way contest.

President Trump lost Virginia in 2016, and the state further cooled toward him in the 10 months after his inauguration. Deep dissatisfaction with him — particularly after he failed to condemn white supremacists for their deadly Charlottesville rally in August of that year — helped Gov. Ralph Northam swamp a formidable and seasoned Republican, former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, and lead the Democrats to a convincing sweep of all three statewide offices and gains in the House of Delegates.

That’s why some of the happiest people in Virginia (albeit privately) if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is declared the winner over Trump will be Cox and the 2021 Republican statewide candidates vying to end their party’s drought of 11 years without a statewide electoral victory and the loss during that time of majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and the state’s 11 U.S. House seats.

Without the yoke Trump has placed on Virginia Republican candidates for the past five years, the party would have the opportunity to reboot itself, find a new voice, a new message and a new leader and, at last, stop fighting among themselves and take the offensive.

Should Trump win another term, however, the GOP will need to brace itself for many more years of continued irrelevance in Virginia.

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Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/The Washington Post)

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