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Opinion On the Virginia Democratic primary ballot: Dual candidacies and progressive priorities

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidates, from left, Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (Richmond), former governor Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Del. Lee Carter (Manassas) and former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (Prince William) at a debate Tuesday in Newport News, Va. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
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Virginia’s 2021 primary season is entering its final days, with Democrats staging their last gubernatorial debate and candidates in a handful of House of Delegates primaries making their final arguments to the relatively small number of voters who will head to the polls.

There are a few things to look for in these last days: the gaffes and stumbles that can end the careers of even the most seasoned pols and the issues that look most likely to carry over into the general election.

Let’s go to the top of the ticket, where the conventional wisdom is pointing to Terry McAuliffe winning the gubernatorial primary. Though there is still an outside chance McAuliffe won’t win — and a McAuliffe loss would be the biggest story to hit the commonwealth’s political scene since Dave Brat defeated Eric Cantor in the 2014 7th Congressional District GOP primary — the former governor appears to have the clear advantage.

But that doesn’t mean McAuliffe is invincible. In Tuesday night’s debate, Del. Lee J. Carter (Manassas) — who is also seeking reelection in the 50th House District, where he faces two primary challengers — exposed a McAuliffe weakness: He’s yet to credibly answer the question “why me?”

According to the Virginia Mercury’s Graham Moomaw, Carter said: “This is the first opportunity for the Democratic Party to define what it is going to be after Donald Trump is gone. And he is gone.”

And: “We can’t just be a party that is opposed to the other guys. We have to fight for something.”

McAuliffe’s answer was to point viewers to his website, where they could read his “131 pages” of policy ideas. Let’s be honest: The only people actively reading his policy ideas are GOP opposition researchers.

The front-runner’s lack of specifics, though, allowed former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (Prince William) to say McAuliffe already had his chance and failed. It was high-octane hyperbole. But it reflects a long-standing progressive view — and a longtime Carroll Foy tactic — that McAuliffe represents all that’s wrong about politics.

Odds are the charge won’t deny McAuliffe the nomination. But look for versions of what both Carroll Foy and Carter have said about McAuliffe to resurface in the general election.

Elsewhere, Democrats have a veritable “surge” of House of Delegates primaries. If these intramural contests have a common thread it’s that the incumbents haven’t been progressive in their outlook and lawmaking.

Perhaps. But House primaries are odd creatures. Personalities and perception matter a lot. So does turnout, which is much smaller in primaries than in general elections. And then there are the twists that could make election night very interesting.

Among them is the dual-candidate status of some Democratic incumbents. There’s something a bit odd about using a seat in the House of Delegates as a backup plan if one’s statewide ambitions run aground. But that perception isn’t stopping some worthies this year.

Consider the 31st House District primary. Incumbent Del. Elizabeth Guzman, who dropped out of the Democratic lieutenant governor race, faces three challengers. While Guzman was focused elsewhere, challenger Rod Hall rolled up endorsements and raised money — more than the incumbent. Hall told the Prince William Times’s Daniel Berti he wouldn’t have run if Guzman had made it clear she was seeking reelection. But he’s not dropping out, either.

The question is whether Hall’s organization can overcome Guzman’s (somewhat hobbled) incumbency.

Similar questions apply to Carter in the 50th District primary, and to Mark Levine, another Democratic House member who is running for two nominations — one for lieutenant governor, another for the 45th District.

Voters will make it all clear on Tuesday. Stay tuned.

Read more:

Mark J. Rozell: Glenn Youngkin’s blank slate may give the Virginia GOP a fighting chance

The Post’s View: Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial candidates just can’t quit Trump

Brad Komar: What the Virginia elections will tell us about the Biden presidency

Perry Bacon Jr.: The misguided identity politics of the anti-Trump Republicans

Mark J. Rozell: Virginia voters face a new election season, and it starts today