WASHINGTON – The Virginia Democrats go to the polls Tuesday to vote their candidates in races from governor to state house, but the start of summer isn’t the only reason this year’s primary season has been sleepy.
Nomination competitions in Virginia held just months after a presidential election often reflect the mood of voters. And if this year’s primary never got going, it was partly because many voters were burned out of politics after four convulsive years of the Trump administration, a fierce 2020 campaign, and a coronavirus pandemic only now receding.
The most dedicated political fans still watched the 2021 races in Virginia. However, former President Donald J. Trump’s continued refusal to acknowledge the defeat, storming the Capitol, and subsequent impeachment investigation diverted attention from state politics in a way that effectively delayed the start of the primary and the former governor’s opponents Terry McAuliffe in the US starved governor’s race of political oxygen.
For former and potentially future governor, Mr. McAuliffe, who was replaced by Governor Ralph Northam in 2018, this was all a matter of heaven because Virginia is the last state in America to ban governors from consecutive terms.
With perhaps the two most powerful weapons in a nationwide area code – name recognition and cash – Mr McAuliffe has a big lead in the polls against four Democrats who are comparatively little known and poorly funded: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, State Senator Jennifer McClellan, State Delegate Lee Carter, and Former State Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy.
But just because Mr. McAuliffe appears ready to claim Tuesday’s nomination for his old job, it doesn’t mean the results won’t be illuminating.
Here’s what to look for in the Democratic races. (The Virginia Republicans nominated their ticket last month, with Glenn Youngkin, a self-financing former private equity executive, standing as the party’s candidate for governor.)
How many voters will it turn out?
In 2009, the Virginia Democrats had a hotly contested governor primary that included two candidates from the electoral suburbs of Washington, but only 319,000 voters voted. In 2017, more than 543,000 Virginians voted for governor in the Democratic primary.
The ultimate difference between these two election cycles: twelve years ago, after the election of President Barack Obama, Republicans would claim governorship, while four years ago the Democrats rode a wave of anti-Trump energy to sweep all three state offices: Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General.
“We don’t need Donald Trump in the White House for our people to get out and vote because Trumpism is alive and well in the Republican Party of Virginia,” said State House spokeswoman Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat, to their position when another anti-Trump wave swept their party to a majority in 2019.
Republicans and some Democrats are not convinced, especially given the nomination of Mr. Youngkin by the G.O.P., a Northern Virginia businessman with Hampton Roads roots.
Without the one-man Democrat electoral lever that Trump was in the Oval Office, can the party still overwhelm Republicans in the suburbs, which often rule Virginia?
The total participation on Tuesday will provide the first clues.
Can Terry McAuliffe win the majority?
It can be difficult to win a majority of the votes in a five-way race. But Mr. McAuliffe has so dominated the primaries that he can possibly crack 50 percent. While it is an arbitrary number, a majority would be a strong vote of confidence in Mr McAuliffe.
He seems well positioned to reach that threshold. He has claimed support from much of the Virginia Democratic establishment, including Mr Northam, who, despite his infamous blackface scandal in 2019, is now hugely popular with the Democrats and prominent African American leaders.
He ran for de facto incumbent, combining his governorship and that of Mr. Northam with the trumpet of the past eight years and the wider Democratic takeover of Virginia. The Republicans have not won a nationwide race since 2009 and are now in the minority of both houses of the General Assembly.
“We’re a new state today,” McAuliffe said last week while stopping at a pastry shop in Arlington, recalling what he’d called “Women’s, Gay, Environmental, Immigration, Pro-Gun” Republican Legislature, when he took office in 2014.
The question is whether his popularity and the recognition he is receiving from the Democrats for Virginia’s transformation is enough to run away in a race against a field that includes younger, more diverse, and more progressive opponents.
Will there be a suburban storm?
The Virginia suburbs outside Washington were strikingly different from the rest of the state. “Occupied Territory” was the joke that residents south of the Rappahannock River made about the more volatile, less cultured southern communities outside the country’s capital.
But now Virginia is a lot more like Northern Virginia. The population centers of Richmond and Hampton Roads are closer to Arlington than Abingdon in demographics and increasingly also in politics.
This is all to say that Mr. McAuliffe’s performance and general turnout in what is known as the Urban Crescent, which stretches from Northern Virginia on Interstate 95 to Richmond and then east on I-64 to Hampton Roads, is on can be observed very closely.
Are these Democrats a) excited to vote and b) eager to endorse an older, more moderate candidate? You were in the 2017 primary when Mr. Northam parried a challenge from his left by former MP Tom Perriello, but Tuesday will tell us more about the state of the party in the counties that have gone Virginia blue.
What about the down-tuning races?
Races for governor always get the most attention in Virginia’s post-presidential year because they can be a handy temperature check for voters. Backlashs are often recognized here first. In fact, until McAuliffe’s victory in 2013, Virginia had a decade-long streak of success electing an opposing party governor from among the White House residents.
But the other two races for nationwide offices, lieutenant governor and attorney general, are also worth keeping an eye on.
The state code for Job # 2 is sparse, with six candidates. Three state lawmakers – Sam Rasoul, Hala Ayala, and Mark Levine – have the most money. Ms. Ayala has the support of Mr. Northam, and Mr. Rasoul would be the first Muslim to be elected to a state office in Virginia.
While the job involves few official duties beyond breaking ties in the state Senate, it is coveted by aspiring politicians as it can be a quick stepping stone to a top job given Virginia’s one-off rule for governors. Former governors. Charles S. Robb, L. Douglas Wilder and Tim Kaine, and Mr. Northam followed this path.
Attorney General can also be a launch pad for the governor – the joke is that A.G. stands for Fast Governor – and many believed that Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, would run this year. But since Mr. McAuliffe was running for governorship, Mr. Herring, who had his own blackface scandal in 2019, decided to seek a third term.
He called on a young black state legislature, Jay Jones, to enlist the assistance of Mr. Northam. However, Mr. Herring has overshadowed Mr. Jones and benefited from greater brand awareness. In a busy season that started slowly and never seemed to fully bloom, that could be enough.