Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that he is backing Terry McAuliffe in the race to succeed him, handing his predecessor one of the contest's most coveted endorsements.
Speaking at an event at the Norfolk waterfront, Northam said McAuliffe was a “visionary” with tireless energy who is best suited to lead Virginia out of the economic recovery from the pandemic and cement the transformational changes Democrats have implemented since taking control of state government.
“Let’s all get behind him. Let’s keep Virginia blue, and let’s win in November," said Northam, who under Virginia law cannot seek a consecutive term in office.
McAuliffe, the presumptive front-runner in the five-person Democratic primary, to be held in June, has been methodically locking up and rolling out an unmatched number of endorsements and said he was honored to have Northam's.
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“This is the biggest endorsement in the commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said.
A former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and top party fundraiser who was previously in office from 2014-2018, McAuliffe has promised that increased education spending would be his top priority if elected. He’s also pledged to work to accelerate Virginia’s minimum wage increase to $15 by 2024 and said during a debate Tuesday night that he would push to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Northam's senior political adviser, Mark Bergman, said that in making his decision, the governor met with all the Democratic candidates except Lee Carter, the only socialist in the House of Delegates, who did not seek his endorsement.
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Bergman said that for Northam, it was a decision between McAuliffe and the two women in the race, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan.
Northam’s decision, which was shared with The Associated Press ahead of the formal announcement, will likely be a disappointment for supporters of Carroll Foy and McClellan. Both are running what could be history-making bids — either would be Virginia’s first female governor and the nation’s first Black female governor.
McClellan held a press conference in Richmond to push back on the implication she’s not ready to lead.
“I have more state government experience not only than Gov. McAuliffe, but the entire field combined,” she said. “I can build on that experience on day one to serve the needs of the people today.”
McAuliffe's decision to enter the race after he decided against a run for president in 2020 rankled some Democrats, who say it's time for a new generation of leadership.
Also in the race is Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is facing two unresolved allegations of sexual assault that are widely seen as impossible to overcome. Fairfax strenuously denies the allegations and has said he thinks voters will see through what he calls a smear campaign against him.
Political analyst Mark Rozell said Northam’s endorsement is about preserving his legacy, which brought sweeping change.
“I think when he looked at the overall calculation, he decided, in his view, that the person who has the best chance of winning in the general election and, most importantly, carrying on the Northam agenda, right, is Terry McAuliffe,” Rozell said.
Virginia has undergone a swift transformation during Northam's tenure, which coincided with a Democratic takeover of the state legislature. Northam has signed into law legislation that has made Virginia an outlier in the South, including Medicaid expansion, sweeping criminal justice reforms, LGBTQ protections, a minimum wage increase and stricter gun laws.
The Nov. 2 general election will give voters a chance to weigh in on the direction Democrats have taken the state. In addition to the governor's race, voters will pick the attorney general, lieutenant governor and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates.
“If Virginians had any doubt about what they could expect from a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion, Ralph Northam just eliminated it with his endorsement of Terry McAuliffe. Northam’s time as Governor has been marked by scandal and poor leadership," former House Speaker Kirk Cox, one of the seven candidates seeking the Republican nomination in the race, said in a statement.
Cox noted that McAuliffe was among those who called on Northam to resign after a scandal exploded in early 2019 over a racist photo in Northam's medical school yearbook.
Northam apologized for the photo and pledged to spend the rest of his term rebuilding trust and addressing Virginia’s long history of racism and inequity.
In the race for attorney general, Northam also endorsed someone who had previously joined a call for his resignation: Del. Jay Jones, who is challenging incumbent Mark Herring.
In that endorsement, Northam said that it was “time for a new generation of leaders to take the reins.”
Among McAuliffe's other endorsements: Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, 34 members of the General Assembly and 11 members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
Among the co-chairs of his campaign are two of the state's most powerful Black lawmakers: House Majority Leader Charniele Herring and Senate President Pro-Tempore Louise Lucas.
The Democratic primary is scheduled for June 8. Republicans have opted to whittle down their field at a convention May 8 that will be held at sites across the state.