Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination to return to his old job Tuesday, setting up a November general election with Republican Glenn Youngkin.
His competitors were Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, state Del. Lee Carter, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.
McAuliffe’s primary victory sets the stage for a fall campaign that will be closely watched by both political parties. As one of the few major statewide elections this year, it will serve as an early test of the nation’s political climate a year after the tumultuous 2020 presidential race and one year ahead of the crucial 2022 midterm congressional elections.
President Joe Biden won 54 percent of the vote in Virginia in 2020, easily defeating President Donald Trump, who received 44 percent in a state that was once highly competitive but has seen the Democrats’ advantage grow during the Trump era.
Trump quickly endorsed Youngkin, last month after the former private equity executive was nominated from a seven-candidate field through a party convention, an endorsement the Virginia Democratic Party has used to try to tie Youngkin tightly to the former president.
Virginia selects a new governor every four years, with the election taking place one year after every presidential election. The state prohibits the winner from serving consecutive terms. With the exception of McAuliffe’s 2013 victory, in the midst of Democrat Barack Obama’s second term as president, voters in the state have in recent history bucked national trends, favoring gubernatorial candidates from the party that doesn’t hold the White House.
McAuliffe, a well-wired former Democratic National Committee chairman and friend to Bill and Hillary Clinton, leaned heavily on his previous term as governor during the primaries. His name-recognition and fundraising talents made him the obvious frontrunner after he entered the race in December.
But his victory was also a blow to some Democratic activists’ hopes of electing McClellan or Carroll Foy as the nation’s first Black female governor. McClellan, a seasoned state lawmaker, presented herself as a candidate who could rival McAuliffe’s experience and make history in the process. Carroll Foy, bearing endorsements from Democracy for America and the Working Families Party, was friendlier with the progressive left. Organizations dedicated to electing women and women of color initially supported both, reluctant to pick a favorite. Carroll Foy ultimately won an endorsement from one of those groups, the Higher Heights for America PAC.
Any concerns that McAuliffe stood in the way of history — he launched his 2021 bid after Carroll Foy and McClellan had been running for months — did not register enough to derail his campaign. His rivals used debates to try to press a need for new leadership, but the most memorable moment from any of the four forums was probably at the first, where Fairfax accused fellow Democrats of treating him like George Floyd and Emmett Till when they called on him to resign after two women accused him of sexual assault in 2019.
McAuliffe kept most of his focus on the Republicans, and since Youngkin’s convention win had used his public appearances to criticize the GOP nominee, not his Democratic opponents.