McAuliffe looms large as Virginia Democrats pick governor nominee

McAuliffe looms large as Virginia Democrats pick governor nominee
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Virginia Democratic voters are heading to the polls in the party’s gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, capping off a campaign that has been dominated by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). 

Polls throughout the primary have consistently shown McAuliffe leading the five-person primary field, while the former governor has proven to be the strongest fundraising force in the race. 

A Roanoke College survey released on Friday showed McAuliffe leading the Democratic primary field with 49 percent support among likely voters. Former Virginia Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy trailed at 11 percent support, and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan followed at 9 percent support. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Lee Carter trailed at 5 percent and 1 percent, respectively. 

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“The Democratic primary has been a debate about differing approaches, differing experiences, and differing agendas, but they’ve done it in a way that should be easy for the party to coalesce behind the eventual nominee,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who is not supporting a candidate in the primary. 

But McAuliffe’s Democratic opponents argue that Virginians are hungry for new leadership, in particular leadership that reflects the party’s progressive wing. 

This was on display during last week’s primary debate, where McAuliffe fielded attacks from his opponents, who called him uninspiring and “out of touch.” 

“You don’t get change by recycling career politicians and the same status quo that’s left so many Virginians behind,” Carroll Foy, the primary’s leading progressive candidate, told The Hill. 

McAuliffe, who left office in 2018 due to term limits with relatively high approval ratings, is a leading figure in the party’s establishment. Prior to serving as governor, he was chair of the Democratic National Committee in the early 2000s and chaired then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Shontel Brown wins Ohio Democratic primary in show of establishment strength READ: Cuomo's defense against sexual harassment investigation MORE’s (D-N.Y.) 2008 presidential campaign. 

For his part, he has largely steered away from hitting back against his primary opponents. 

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“That’s what happens when you’re the front-runner,” McAuliffe told The Hill the day after the debate, referring to the attacks made against him.

McAuliffe touts his record bringing businesses to Virginia and his work helping Democrats flip the state legislature, solidifying Virginia’s status as a blue state. 

“Who was in the charge of all of that? Who did they ask to come back? Me,” he said. 

McAuliffe has campaigned on his previous record as governor, pledging to build upon it in a post-pandemic world. He’s received endorsements from establishment figures like current Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries On The Money: Biden issues targeted eviction moratorium | GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal 'The Squad' celebrates Biden eviction moratorium MORE (D-Calif.) and Rep. Elaine LuriaElaine Goodman LuriaOvernight Defense: Watchdog blasts government's handling of Afghanistan conflict | Biden asks Pentagon to look into mandatory vaccines | Congress passes new Capitol security bill Overnight Defense: House Armed Services starts defense bill markups | Two Navy sailors die of COVID-19 | Pentagon reimposes mask mandate in some places Misled condemnation of the Lebanese Armed Forces will help Hezbollah MORE (D-Va.). 

The former governor’s campaign has been quick to highlight his proposed policies, including providing health care to all Virginia residents and investing $2 billion into education in the state. 

“It’s a reflection of where the Democratic electorate certainly is,” said Democratic strategist Atima Omara, who served as a special assistant to Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response One officer dead after violent incident outside Pentagon Bipartisan bill would create NSC position to oversee 'Havana syndrome' response MORE (D-Va.) when Warner was governor of Virginia. 

But McAuliffe has fielded some criticism for seeking a second term as Carroll Foy and McClellan both seek to make history as the first Black woman to lead the Old Dominion and the country’s first Black female governor. 

“It’s not lost on me that when people tune in and they see me, a woman with Black skin and ambitious ideas running to be the next governor in the cradle of the Confederacy,” Carroll Foy said. “It raises eyebrows.” 

McClellan told The Hill that she has experienced excitement from voters, who are hopeful about her prospects as the next governor. 

“They want to be excited about a candidate and Virginia is ready for someone who brings a new perspective. They’re ready for a Black woman, they’re ready for the next generation of leadership,” she said. 

McAuliffe touts his support from Black voters in polls as well as support from figures like Virginia Senate President pro tempore Louise Lucas and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. 

“I’m running because of the Black caucus here in Virginia. They recruited me. The leadership came to me,” McAuliffe said. 

Carroll Foy has collected a number of notable endorsements of her own in the race, particularly from the progressive flank of the Democratic Party. On Friday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee announced it was backing Carroll Foy in the race, joining Rep. Lauren UnderwoodLauren UnderwoodBiden's midterm strategies start to come into focus Biden aims to build support for jobs and families plan in Illinois Hollywood goes all in for the For the People Act MORE (D-Ill.), the Sunrise Movement, Sunrise Movement Virginia, Democracy for America and Virginia Justice Democrats.

McClellan has garnered endorsements from NARAL Pro-Choice, Oregon Gov. Kate BrownKate BrownNew spotlight on secretaries of state as electoral battlegrounds Oregon mandates masks in schools, state buildings Sunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe MORE (D) and former Rep. Leslie Byrne (D-Va.), who was the first woman to represent Virginia in Congress. 

Strategists say that if McAuliffe were not a factor in the race, it would be a head-to-head between McClellan and Carroll Foy. 

“If you only listened to groups that have either large social media presences or large presences within D.C., you would think that Jennifer Carroll Foy is the alternative to McAuliffe, but at least if that Roanoke College poll is right, the two Jens are at about the same place,” said one Democratic strategist. 

But McAuliffe has already set his sights on Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, tying him to former President TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE. 

“Now we have Glenn Youngkin, who is Trump personified,” McAuliffe said. 

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“Glenn’s made the decision he’s going all-in on Trump. I think Ed Gillespie tried to have it both ways. Well, Glenn has said ‘I’m all in,’ ” he added, referring to Northam’s 2017 opponent.

Strategists say it’s too soon to tell how Virginia voters will react to efforts to tie Youngkin to Trump but say it will be critical for both sides to rally their bases. 

“You have a Democratic base in Virginia that has not lost in 12 years. They only know how to win,” said Tucker Martin, a former aide to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the last Republican to hold the post. 

“They’ve won so many elections and they don’t feel any need to go to the center. Why go to the center when they keep winning going left, and also you just beat Donald Trump, so are you really motivated to do the hard work?”