And no wonder. The fact is that Mr. McAuliffe was an excellent governor who notched major achievements despite being hamstrung by Republicans, who then controlled the state legislature. His performance in office — tireless, bold, pragmatic — confounded the expectations of many, even in his own party, who once regarded him as a fast-talking opportunist.
His primary opponents are current or former Democratic officeholders; one of them, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, is admired as a seasoned, substantive legislator. Yet neither she nor any of the others — former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, Del. Lee Carter and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — has made a plausible case that they could match Mr. McAuliffe’s talent for persuasion and strategy.
As governor, Mr. McAuliffe succeeded in wiping out a colossal injustice: the disenfranchisement of more than 200,000 people convicted of felonies, nearly half of them African Americans, whose debt to society had been paid, in many cases decades earlier. By restoring the vote all but automatically to ex-inmates following the completion of their criminal sentence, Mr. McAuliffe overcame opposition from GOP lawmakers and the state Supreme Court, and did as much to advance the cause of racial equity as any governor in Virginia’s history.
That helps explain his support among Black state legislators, more of whom have endorsed him than any of his opponents, three of whom — Ms. McClellan, Ms. Carroll Foy and Mr. Fairfax — are themselves African American. Those lawmakers, along with many other prominent Democrats, also see Mr. McAuliffe’s candidacy as the party’s best shot at prolonging a decade-long run of electoral success that has given it control of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature for the first time in a generation.
Mr. McAuliffe promises to improve public education and raise teacher salaries, as do his primary rivals. His ambitious plan would require a titanic sales job, but Mr. McAuliffe is nothing if not a gifted salesman.
By contrast, his primary rivals are relatively untested on a statewide stage. Ms. McClellan is a consummate insider in the General Assembly, where she has served 15 years, but her nose-to-the-grindstone legislative approach may be less effective in an executive role. Ms. Carroll Foy, who has appealed to the party’s liberal wing, grew up in poverty and has a compelling personal story; nonetheless, her political experience — she served just three years in the House of Delegates before resigning to run for governor — is thin. So is that of Mr. Carter, a self-styled democratic socialist. Mr. Fairfax is quick on his feet and engaging — he may still have a bright political future despite the unproven sexual assault allegations leveled against him by two women — but has run a campaign longer on rhetoric than detailed policy plans.
When he first ran for governor, in 2009, Mr. McAuliffe, though he had led the Democratic National Committee and was renowned as a fundraiser, was widely considered an electoral lightweight; he was crushed in the Democratic primary. Undeterred, he spent the next four years barnstorming the state and won a tight race in 2013 against a right-wing culture warrior, Ken Cuccinelli.
This year Mr. McAuliffe runs as a proven commodity, fluent in policy, idealistic in outlook and clear-eyed about how to get things done. He has lost none of his relentlessly upbeat affect, but no one dismisses him as a lightweight any longer. He was a first-rate governor and makes a compelling case that he would be again.