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What To Look For In The Democratic Primaries In Virginia

What To Look For In The Democratic Primaries In Virginia

On Tuesday, Virginia primary voters will decide the Democratic nominees for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state House of Delegates.

Who they elect could determine Democrats' ability to maintain control of every branch of state government, the influence of the party's progressive wing, and whether Virginia will witness a number of historic identity milestones from candidates of color vying for top positions.

Here's a list of races to keep an eye on.

The Return of the 'Macker' And Two Jennifers

Governors in Virginia are not allowed to serve consecutive terms.

However, when former Gov. Terry “The Macker” McAuliffe (D) became eligible for a second term, he jumped at the opportunity.

McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2017, was chastised for entering the race months after state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy announced their intentions; either of the two women would be Virginia's first female governor and the country's first Black woman governor.

McAuliffe, however, has established a massive lead that most poll watchers believe is insurmountable, thanks to his positive reputation, network of big-dollar donors, and deep relationships with Black elected officials and community leaders.

Carroll Foy ran a well-funded, competitive campaign in which she cast herself as a clear progressive foil to McAuliffe. Her support for repealing the state's "right-to-work" law, which makes it more difficult for unions to thrive, earned her the support of several major unions, and likely prompted McAuliffe to privately admit that he would sign a bill repealing "right-to-work" if it came to his desk.

Furthermore, McAuliffe's responses as governor to police killings and other racial justice and civil liberties issues have been scrutinized. McAuliffe and his supporters point to his restoration of voting rights to 173,000 ex-felons, which disproportionately benefited Black residents, and his plan to close racial disparities as evidence of his commitment.

Virginia Del. Lee Carter, a democratic socialist, and Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, whose campaign was stymied by sexual assault allegations that he denies, both lost ground in the race.

If Carroll Foy pulls off an upset victory, progressives will rejoice at the opportunity to transform Virginia from a light-blue state to a true liberal stronghold, while Republicans will likely boast about their good fortune at the chance to run against a more left-leaning standard bearer, while moderate Democrats will wring their hands at the prospect of a more difficult general election.

In contrast, a McAuliffe victory demonstrates the enduring power of name recognition, electability, and mainstream policymaking in a state where college-educated suburbanites and older and more moderate Black voters dominate the Democratic coalition, and he promises to pass a more ambitious progressive agenda than was possible during his first term when Republicans controlled the legislature.

In November, the winner of Tuesday's election will face Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, a private equity executive.

For Progressives, Second Place Is The Charm

Although polling is not looking good for the activist left's preferred gubernatorial candidates, the progressive nominee for lieutenant governor, Del. Sam Rasoul, is still in with a chance.

Rasoul, a Roanoke management consultant endorsed by an ideologically diverse array of validators ranging from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to The Washington Post editorial board, is running on a progressive populist platform of enacting an “intersectional Green New Deal” and limiting corporate influence in state politics.

Rasoul's most formidable opponent is Del. Hala Ayala, a cybersecurity specialist from Prince William County who has the backing of some of the state's most powerful Democrats, including Gov. Ralph Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring.

Rasoul would be Virginia's first Muslim lieutenant governor and one of the country's highest-ranking Palestinian Americans if elected, while Ayala, who is Afro-Latina and part Lebanese, would be the state's first nonwhite woman in the No. 2 position.

When it comes to personal backgrounds, Rasoul's identity received more attention, thanks to an Islamophobic debate question that backfired on the moderator. The moderator asked Rasoul, whose biggest individual donors are Muslims, how he could assure Virginians that he would serve all of them regardless of faith.

Ayala led Raosul in the most recent public poll, but she also lost an endorsement after accepting $100,000 from Dominion Energy despite pledging not to accept contributions from the state's powerful electric monopolies. Rasoul, on the other hand, is an outspoken antitrust crusader and Dominion foe.

Rasoul and Ayala will face state Del. Mark Levine, civil rights activist and attorney Sean Perryman, Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan, and businessman Xavier Warren.

A 'New Voice' Or Herring's Third Term

When Northam admitted to wearing blackface 25 years earlier in February 2019, it engulfed Virginia officials in a scandal that spared none of the state's top three Democrats.

As pressure mounted on Northam to resign, which would have resulted in Fairfax's appointment as governor, two women came forward to accuse Fairfax of sexual assault.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s out of fear that his own secrets would be revealed involuntarily.

Herring, a dry public speaker seeking re-election to a third term as the state's top law enforcement official, is now facing a challenge from Del. Jay Jones, a young Black lawmaker.

Jones is running to Herring's left, but the primary is really about Herring's character and whether voters are looking for a "new voice for a new Virginia decade," as Jones bills himself.

Jones has accused Herring of displaying “no empathy” in his apology for using blackface and has suggested that Herring’s professed commitment to combating police misconduct is politically motivated; he has also promised to take a tougher stance with Virginia’s electric utility companies, despite the fact that the attorney general’s office has limited power over them.

Despite the fact that Herring is the establishment favorite, Northam surprised some observers by endorsing Jones in March.

According to the most recent poll, Herring has a 20-point lead, but Jones is more competitive than McAuliffe's opponents in the gubernatorial primary.

The State House Is Putting Monopoly Power On Trial

On Tuesday, the Democratic nomination for a number of state House seats will be up for grabs.

Only a few of them are competitive and have the potential to significantly alter the ideological makeup of Virginia's House Democratic Caucus.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, an ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and one of the state House's only Latino members, withdrew from the race for lieutenant governor in April and is now defending her seat against three candidates who announced their candidacies believing they would be competing for an open seat.

Rod Hall, a former congressional aide who now works at one of Washington's largest lobbying firms, is the most formidable of these candidates, with support from a number of Black Virginia legislators and national organizations.

Hall, who is running as an advocate for better public transportation, has the profile of a mainstream Democrat, and if he replaces Guzman, who is an outspoken critic of corporate power, he would shift the caucus' balance of power slightly to the center.

In Virginia's 2nd House District, Del. Candi King was elected in a special election in January to fill the seat vacated by Carroll Foy. Attorney Pamela Montgomery is challenging King from the left, with the support of some progressives who see Montgomery as a truer heir to Carroll Foy's legacy as a civil rights and economic justice advocate.

In the Hampton Roads region, community activist Nadarius Clark, a Black man, is running from the left against longtime Del. Steve Heretick, a white man.

The common thread in all three races is that the more left-leaning candidates advocate for a tougher stance against Dominion Energy and the state's electric utility monopolies. A certain segment of Virginia's economic progressives has made limiting utility companies' influence in the legislature both an urgent anti-corruption priority and a prerequisite to turning the tide on climate change.

Clean Virginia, a nonprofit organization founded by Charlottesville hedge fund manager Michael Bills and his philanthropist wife Sonjia Smith to fight Dominion and promote renewable energy, has endorsed Clark, Montgomery, and Guzman.

Commonwealth Forward, an independent spending group largely funded by Clean Virginia, is also spending $500,000 to help those three candidates' campaigns.

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