Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s new political action committee isn’t for a gubernatorial run — at least not yet.
The Richmond Democrat launched Virginia United this week with the goal of helping capture the General Assembly.
She announced Tuesday morning in a news release that the PAC has already raised $50,000 to support legislative and local candidates this November.
“This is the last chance to take the majority before we do redistricting, we’re closer than we’ve ever been before,” McClellan said in an interview. “In 2017, it came down to pulling a name out of a bowl and I don’t want to see that happen again. If we don’t do it now, how long is it going to be?”
McClellan’s PAC rollout comes at a time when the state’s top Democrats, who traditionally raise money for legislative races, have reported paltry numbers because of various scandals: A photo with someone in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan robe was found on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page (he has said he’s not in the photo); Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface in college and two women accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault.
There has been growing speculation McClellan might run for governor in 2021, especially after the accusations against Fairfax surfaced. Before that, he was in line to become governor if Northam stepped down and McClellan appeared to be a shoo-in candidate for lieutenant governor.
Rachel Bitecofer, a professor of political science and assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, sees the PAC as a sign that McClellan is interested in a gubernatorial run, given the avenue it provides to build name recognition and support among fellow Democrats.
“It’s a real indication that she’s definitely eyeing that gubernatorial bid for me,” Bitecofer said.
Fairfax, once seen as a potential Democratic front-runner, is no longer viable and Herring is vulnerable, said Bitecofer, who is predicting a large Democratic gubernatorial field in 2021 that could include a return by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. He opted not to run for president but has demurred about whether he might run for governor again.
If McClellan did run for governor and won, she’d be the first woman to hold that position.
But Virginia United is not necessarily McClellan’s future gubernatorial PAC, McClellan said.
“My number one priority is winning the majority and then using that majority in 2020 to get some of the things that I and other Democrats have been trying to do for over a decade,” she said. “Beyond that, I’m thinking about how and where I can best serve the commonwealth. I’ll make a decision on that after we get the majority and get our work done.”
McClellan said the scandals in the executive branch were one consideration in choosing to launch Virginia United now, but her focus is on winning a majority to pass bills that have been blocked in the legislature for years.
“Time will tell how much they’ll be able to do, but if I’m being honest, I think the party came to rely too heavily on the top three guys, or whoever the highest ranking Democrat was,” she said. ”It’s like any muscle, if we don’t exercise it, it gets weaker and we’re so close and there’s so much at stake, we need every cylinder firing at full throttle.”
Tram Nguyen, the co-executive director at New Virginia Majority, Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, and Alexsis Rodgers, communications director for the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood also felt compelled to respond after February’s scandals and formed the Rising Power PAC.
“In these moments of deep political crises, we see character we haven’t seen before and we saw a lack of leadership,” Rodgers said. “There’s only so long that you can really be outraged until you say, ‘What are you going to do, what’s the path forward?'”
“In the midst of Virginia burning down … there’s this hope… and women of color can lead the way forward,” she said.
Rising Power launched last week and has about 50 supporters so far, Rodgers said. The group is still finalizing board procedures.
“The PAC is led by & supports (women of color) leaders committed to defending our rights, promoting dignity, and dismantling racial inequity,” Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, tweeted Sunday while asking people to donate.
McClellan and Rodgers listed similar policy focuses for each PAC education funding; school disciplinary reform so students don’t end up in legal trouble for issues in the classroom; expanding and protecting access to health care, including reproductive health; anti-discrimination legislation in housing and employment and solar energy initiatives.
Virginia United and Rising Power will also support local races. McClellan said policy-making doesn’t stop at the state level: Criminal justice reform, for example, can be carried out by local commonwealth’s attorneys, she said.
Rising Power wants to support candidates who are “very qualified but running against insurmountable odds, financially,” Rodgers said.
“How do we make sure women of color, when they run, are well-qualified and committed to progressive values, they don’t get so beat on the money race?” she said.
McClellan said she’s noticed increased interest in black women candidates, especially since Stacey Abrams lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race by 55,000 votes, in part, some analysts said, because of voter suppression.
“This is something that’s been building for a long time,” McClellan said of the new PACs. “We have seen informal support systems building up for years and I think this was just a way to formalize that.”
Editor Robert Zullo contributed.