Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s signature exuberance was on full display as he campaigned on Memorial Day weekend in downtown Petersburg, cracking jokes in a beauty salon, leading a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and breaking into a dance on a sidewalk.
“I want everybody to know we are back here in Virginia, and we’re going to be stronger than we’ve ever been. We are going to lead the nation out of this COVID crisis,” he told a crowd of supporters and spectators that began chanting his name.
In his quest for a second term, McAuliffe heads into Tuesday’s five-way Democratic primary with an undeniable lead in public polling, name recognition, endorsements and money. But the question facing voters in the primary election is whether the political veteran with decades of experience is the right man for the moment in a state and nation deeply divided and in the throes of unsettling change.
In Virginia, Democrats assumed full control of state government in 2020, two years after McAuliffe left office, and pushed through sweeping change, from gun control to police reform to marijuana legalization to an increase in the minimum wage, transforming what was once a reliably red state into an outlier in the South.
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McAuliffe is an old-school politician who cut his teeth working on President Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign and later led the Democratic National Committee. If he wins the nomination he’ll face a tough GOP challenger from Northern Virginia who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump and vast personal wealth to boost his campaign.
That’s not a matchup in tune with the times or that bodes well for Democrats, say McAuliffe’s two leading primary opponents — a well-respected veteran state senator and an energetic former state delegate both looking for a shot to become the nation’s first Black woman governor.
Virginians deserve better than two “millionaire out-of-touch politicians” at the top of the ticket, Jennifer Carroll Foy, who stepped down last year from her state House seat to focus on her run for governor, said in an interview.
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On the campaign trail earlier this week in Hampton Roads, she doubled down on that line of attack.
“The wealthy and well-connected have a lot of representation in Richmond. But what about us in our community?” said the 39-year-old Carroll Foy, as she appeared with the father of a young Black man killed by police in Virginia Beach in March. “We need someone who’s gone to church and worshipped where we worship, gone to our schools, breathed our air and drank our water, who understands the struggles that we face because she’s lived them.”
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan called out McAuliffe in a recent debate, saying the Democrats need a nominee who will “excite and expand” the base.
McClellan, an attorney who has served in the legislature since 2006, has worked diligently over the years to help craft and deliver much of the reform legislation that now defines Virginia. She said her campaign has spoken to over 100,000 voters, interactions that leave her confident Virginians are ready for change.
“This is not a conventional wisdom moment, and we need someone who is not a conventional wisdom candidate,” McClellan, 48, said in an interview.
The field of five Democrats also includes Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Lee Carter, a self-described socialist, who embraces a move away from establishment politics and even more sweeping social change such as statewide universal health care and reparations for Black and indigenous Virginians.
McAuliffe’s opponents like to point out that he lost the Democratic primary during his first run in 2009 and won the general election in 2013 by just two points. They say he puts the party at risk in a rare off-year election that will be closely scrutinized as a bellwether for the national mid-term elections.
Voters like Richard Averitt, an independent-voting “never Trumper,” say so, too. He is a landowner along the path of the now-scuttled Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which McAuliffe backed during his first term. He has donated to and volunteered for Carroll Foy, saying he was impressed by her track record, “grit” and early promise not to take money from lobbying powerhouse Dominion Energy.
“I truly believe she will vote to represent the people and not the corporations,” said Averitt, who predicted McAuliffe would lose the general if tapped as the nominee.
McAuliffe, 64, has promised if elected again to create the nation’s best economy and education system, and he’s attracted a broad swath of endorsements from community leaders and 350 elected officials, including Gov. Ralph Northam and nearly half the legislative Black caucus.
There’s also a sense of immense gratitude for his role in 2019 in helping Democrats retake control of the House majority, which positioned them to enact the transformative policy changes unimaginable during his own term.
“There is nobody that worked harder,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said.
In an interview outside a Petersburg soul food restaurant, the former governor made the case that beating the GOP's nominee, Glenn Youngkin, who has the ability to self-fund a substantial portion of his campaign, will take someone with fundraising prowess and the ability to build a broad coalition.
“I’m the one who’s proven in the campaign that I can do it,” he said.
That’s a message that resonates with voters like George C.W. Lyons, a pastor in Petersburg, who said he was impressed with this year’s broad field of Democratic candidates. But Lyons said McAuliffe was his pick because of the “experience, the track record of somebody who’s been in it before.”
Lyons said voters will get their say Tuesday on whether McAuliffe is trying to stand in the way of others offering a fresher perspective. But for him personally?
“I want him to win by a landslide,” he said.