There won’t be another presidential election until 2024, and Americans will have to wait until next year to cast their ballots for members of Congress–but that doesn’t mean there aren’t important elections this year. The Virginia governor’s race is the first big test for Joe Biden and the Democrats in 2021. Despite recent Democratic dominance in the state, a Republican victory in Virginia could be an early indicator of backlash against a Democratic party that has used its control of the White House and razor-thin margins in the House and Senate to push increasingly radical legislation.
No Republican has won statewide in Virginia since 2009 – a startling and rapid reversal in a state that voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election from 1964 until Barack Obama won Virginia in 2008. The shift has been driven in large part by massive population growth in the northern part of the state, particularly Arlington and Fairfax counties just outside Washington D.C. Many rural Virginians increasingly feel isolated and alienated by this change, as the Swamp-dwellers who occupy the ever-expanding sprawl of high-rise apartments and luxury condos in the D.C. suburbs dictate policies for the rest of the state which is mostly deep red.
Although any Republican will undoubtedly be an underdog in the race, there is an increasing prospect that the Democrat frontrunner, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, is compromising his general election appeal by tacking far left in the primary. McAuliffe held the governorship from 2013 until the current Governor, Ralph Northam, succeeded him in 2017, as Virginia law doesn’t permit governors to serve multiple terms consecutively.
Governor Northam faced controversy in 2019 after he admitted to being one of two people in a photo showing one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. He has endorsed McAuliffe. After initially calling for Northam to resign over the aforementioned incident, McAuliffe has accepted Northam’s endorsement.
Some pundits have also noted a growing dissatisfaction among voters with unified Democrat control of the Virginia House of Delegates, Senate, and the governorship. Virginia has undoubtedly leaned more Democratic in recent years, but it remains far more conservative than places like California or New York. Yet, Virginia Democrats in Richmond have nonetheless rammed through a far-left policy agenda, such as eliminating the death penalty and passing legislation that allows healthcare insurers to provide abortion coverage on-demand, largely repealing the state’s previous restrictions on abortion.
McAuliffe’s campaign appears to be taking cues from these left-wing policymakers in the State Assembly, ditching his prior image as a Clintonian moderate. The McAuliffe campaign website now states that the former governor “has spent his life championing progressive issues.” McAuliffe has become an outspoken critic of Second Amendment freedoms, calling for increased bans on firearms and ammunition, and says he is “proudly running with an “F” rating from the NRA.” In a recent tweet, McAuliffe called pro-religious liberty legislation “a license to discriminate,” and he is an open advocate for government-funded healthcare. During his previous term as governor, many of these far-left policies were often checked by a Republican state legislature. Now, McAuliffe says that his first term was “Just warming up. You give me a Democratic legislature; there is no stopping me.” In other words, formerly moderate McAuliffe is now an unabashed radical.
All of this could amount to a golden opportunity for Republicans to exploit as the Democratic party lurches left both nationally and in Virginia. Recent history also indicates that Virginia is not as much of a lost cause for Republicans as some may think. Although the GOP has lost recent races, it has kept the margins narrow even as national Republican groups such as the Republican Governors Association spent relatively little money in the state. During McAuliffe’s last campaign, a mere 56,435 votes separated him and his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli. With a reinvigorated Republican Party in Virginia and ample outside support, a strong conservative candidate stands a real chance of denying McAuliffe another term.
Two businessmen, Glenn Youngkin and Pete Snyder, currently hold a slight edge in a crowded Republican primary field that features several strong candidates. Youngkin, who bills himself as a pro-Trump, entrepreneurial Republican, rose from washing dishes at a Virginia Beach diner to become CEO of the Carlyle Group, a major player in global private equity. Snyder is a William & Mary grad, was an early pioneer in digital marketing through social media, and is endorsed by high-profile Republicans like E.W. Jackson and Ken Cuccinelli. Other candidates on the Republican ticket include state Senator Amanda Chase, state Delegate Kirk Cox, published author and former president of the Center for European Policy Analysis Peter Doran, former Trump Pentagon official Sergio de la Peña, and former Roanoke Sheriff Octavia Johnson – who would be the first black woman to hold Virginia’s governorship.
Unlike a traditional primary, the Virginia Republican Party will use what is called an “unassembled convention” to select their nominee for governor this year. Under this system, voters must first sign up online to be a delegate to the unassembled convention. From here, the nominating process will look much like a traditional primary. Voters who sign up to be delegates will simply head to one of 37 voting locations across the state on May 8 and cast a single ballot using ranked-choice voting. The candidate with the majority of first-place votes will win the primary. If there is no candidate with a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the least number of first-place votes will be eliminated, elevating the second-preference choice on those ballots to their new first choice, and the votes will be tallied again until a candidate reaches a majority of first-place votes.
May 8 could be the day that begins the decline of Democrat power both in Richmond and Washington.
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