He’s not officially on the comeback trail yet, but it wasn’t hard to see the message former Gov. Terry McAuliffe was sending last week.

He announced his PAC had raised $1.7 million in two months, an astounding sum for someone who’s been out of office for two-and-a-half years and technically isn’t running for anything. His donor list included senior Democratic lawmakers, including several members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. 

The release suggested that, even out of office, McAuliffe played a key role in turning Virginia blue last year as one of the top donors to the Democratic Party of Virginia. After Democrats won control of the General Assembly despite their three top elected leaders being hobbled by scandals, they started passing legislation this year that was unthinkable in the GOP-held legislature of McAuliffe’s era. 

The statement from McAuliffe’s Common Good VA PAC said the ex-governor is focused on helping presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden win the White House. But it clearly signaled he’s thinking about Virginia’s future and his potential role in it as — in Biden’s words — the “once and future governor.”

From elected officials to labor leaders to progressive activists, Virginians all over the commonwealth are powering former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s efforts to keep Virginia blue in 2020 and beyond,” the release said.

Not all progressives were happy to see McAuliffe try to reassert his place atop Democratic politics as he considers running for a second term in 2021, particularly at a time when two Black women — Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy —  have already launched gubernatorial campaigns of their own.

One activist summed up her thoughts with a Twitter hashtag: “#StandBackTMac”

“I would like to see him take what he brings to the table and use that to lift up women of color and not push them aside,” that activist, Melissa McKenney of Henrico County, said in an interview. “He’s already held the seat. We have the opportunity in Virginia to make history and elect a Black woman governor. I think that he would be doing Virginia and the country a service to lift them up so that we can see that accomplished.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, on the Senate floor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

There’s still about a year to go before Democrats start casting votes in the 2021 primary. But its initial phase — unfolding as a crisis-stricken nation reckons with issues of racial justice and equality — has a power dynamic sparking uneasy conversations in Democratic circles.

McClellan, D-Richmond, and Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, both attorneys, are already off and running, and both campaigns carry historic significance. Virginia has never elected a woman as governor, and no state has elected a Black woman as governor.

But women have been at the center of Virginia’s recent blue wave, a shift largely powered by a backlash against President Donald Trump. Democratic wins in the 2017 House of Delegates elections produced a record number of women in the chamber, which elected its first-ever female speaker two years later in Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.

Veena Lothe, executive director of Emerge Virginia, an organization that trains and promotes Democratic women interested in running for office, said that while anyone is free to run, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for building on those gains.

“I think it would be historic to see the capital of the old Confederacy have a woman in charge,” Lothe said. “It’s a great precedent for the rest of the country.”

As they launched their campaigns, neither McClellan nor Carroll Foy directly discussed McAuliffe, opting instead for broader messages about breaking from the past and choosing a candidate for the future. Between the two, McClellan is widely seen as starting from a stronger position due to her longer track record and deeper party ties. Carroll Foy, a millennial who flipped a formerly Republican seat when she was first elected in 2017, is pitching herself as a progressive newcomer with less allegiance to the status quo.

Delegates Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, and Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, speak to reporters outside the gallery of the House of Delegates after voting to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Carroll Foy reported raising $776,000 in the latest reporting period. McClellan reported raising $275,000 in the first week of her campaign, but has not yet released her number for the full reporting period.

Hard-right Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, is currently the only declared Republican candidate for governor. (Former State Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, has said he’s mulling a run). Because the GOP hasn’t won a statewide election in more than a decade, the Democratic primary winner will likely enter the general-election campaign as a strong favorite to become the state’s 74th governor. 

I would love to see Terry be an ally’

To some, the prospect of a White man crowding out two accomplished Black women to retake an influential job he’s already had cuts against the principles of diversity and inclusion Democrats profess to hold.

Lisa Sales of Northern Virginia, a leader in the successful VA Ratify ERA campaign to have Virginia formally support enshrining gender equality in the U.S. Constitution, said she’s worked with McAuliffe and would back him if he’s the nominee. But, she’s decided, “it’s time for the women.”

“I want every little girl in America, no matter the color of their skin, to be able to look up at the Jenns and say ‘I can do that. I can be that,’” Sales said.

Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment stand outside of the entrance to the Capitol on the opening day of the 2020 legislative session.
Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment stand outside of the entrance to the Capitol on the opening day of the 2020 legislative session. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Raising lots of money and using it for “power and control” in politics, Sales said, comes easier to entrenched White men than it does for women and people of color. For McAuliffe to take the historically rare step of running for a second term after McClellan and Carroll Foy have stepped up, Sales said, would be “disrespectful.”

“I would love to see Terry be an ally,” Sales said. “I want to see more men in power become allies and champions of women taking power and evening the playing field.”

It’s not clear how widespread that feeling is. And recent history suggests the larger universe of Democratic primary voters doesn’t always align with conversations taking place among the most plugged-in progressives. 

A historically diverse presidential primary field yielded Biden, a centrist who’s built a comfortable polling lead over President Donald Trump while campaigning mostly from his basement due to COVID-19. Yet Biden committed to choosing a woman as his running mate, and some Democrats are publicly urging him to choose a woman of color.

In the closing days of the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary, many assumed then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was in serious trouble of losing the nomination to progressive ex-congressman Tom Perriello. Northam, endorsed by McAuliffe and most of the state’s Democratic establishment, won by almost a dozen points.

McAuliffe’s legendary fundraising prowess, name recognition and relationships in the party could make him tough to beat, especially if non-McAuliffe voters are split between McClellan, Carroll Foy and others.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said there’s a “huge difference” between winning a seat in the General Assembly and the statewide profile that comes with being governor.

The bigger the field the better his prospects,” Farnsworth said. “If his critics have several choices they will go in different directions.”

If he runs, McAuliffe is expected to pitch himself as an experienced leader who can help Virginia rebound from the pandemic era by stepping back into a job he already knows.

Helping Virginia recover from the economic and health crisis of COVID-19 will require strong Democratic leadership that will fight for all,” McAuliffe said in his PAC’s statement.

In an indication primary support won’t fall neatly along racial lines, McAuliffe’s donor list includes five members of the Black Caucus: Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, and Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth.

In an interview, Lucas called the issue “heart-wrenching” and said she’d love to see a Black governor. But in an unprecedented crisis, she said, she’s more concerned with electing a “proven leader” who can spearhead an economic recovery.

“There’s nothing I would like more than to see an African American woman governor,” Lucas said. “But given the times that we’re facing, I want to see somebody who can win and who can bring us out of this crisis.”

‘We aren’t the same commonwealth’

For all McAuliffe’s strengths, it’s been more than a decade since he competed in a Democratic primary.

Prior to his career in Virginia politics, he was best known for his ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton and a stint as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. His first run for governor in 2009 didn’t end well as Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, won a landslide victory in the Democratic primary and went on to lose to former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. McAuliffe’s outreach in the state paid off in 2013, when he became the Democratic gubernatorial nominee without competition and defeated then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in a close race. 

With Republicans controlling the legislature, his ability to enact his policy agenda was limited, leaving him to use his power largely to block socially conservative bills (including anti-abortion bills to defund Planned Parenthood), make economic development deals and act as the state’s cheerleader-in-chief.

With Virginia Democrats now ascendant and debating how aggressively they should wield their power to reshape a once purple state, it’s unclear how McAuliffe’s pro-business outlook might be perceived in 2021, with more progressive Democrats increasingly focused on empowering workers.

“We aren’t the same commonwealth we were seven years ago when Terry McAuliffe was elected,” said Prince William County Supervisor Kenny Boddye, a progressive who has been active in his local NAACP chapter and has endorsed Carroll Foy. “I think that honestly at this moment in time in our commonwealth’s history, it should be about folks looking and saying ‘How do we pass that torch to the next generation of leaders?’”

The changes afoot in Virginia were on dramatic display last week when Dominion Energy announced it was cancelling the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline after years of doing battle with environmentalists, landowners and progressives opposed to the project.

Many Democrats cheered the demise of the $8 billion project, which Dominion CEO Tom Farrell announced in 2014 with McAuliffe by his side. At the time, McAuliffe called the pipeline a “win-win” that would create jobs and be “great for the environment.”

The McAuliffe era wasn’t all ribbon-cuttings and corporate dealmaking, like laying the groundwork for Amazon’s HQ2 project in Northern Virginia. He championed Medicaid expansion and universal background checks on gun purchases, goals achieved when Democrats started flipping seats in 2017 and took full control in 2019.

He used his executive power to restore voting rights to hundreds of thousands of felons who had served their time, a policy widely seen as a corrective to Virginia’s history of race-based disenfranchisement. Days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, he became the first Southern governor to officiate a gay wedding. He left office in early 2018, just after Democrats flipped 15 House seats that gave them renewed clout in Richmond.

This year, with full policymaking control for the first time in decades, Democrats decriminalized marijuana, lifted abortion restrictions, created a strong anti-discrimination law for LGBTQ people and others, passed sweeping gun-control laws, granted legal driving privileges to undocumented immigrants, raised the minimum wage, made voting easier, started moving Virginia toward a carbon-free electric grid and cleared the way for localities to begin taking down Confederate statues.

All that was impossible in McAuliffe’s time, and the 2021 Democratic primary discussion will largely be about how to protect those policy gains and build on them.

Asked in an interview what she means when she says Virginia needs a future that’s “better than it’s past,” Carroll Foy, who grew up in the economically ailing city of Petersburg, said too many voices haven’t been heard.

“Too many people have put corporate interests above the people’s interests.And that stops now,” said Carroll Foy, a former public defender who practices criminal defense law.

McClellan, a lawyer for Verizon, has also said 2021 will be about more than just returning to the way things used to be pre-pandemic.

“The economy wasn’t doing well for everybody,” McClellan said in an interview when she announced her campaign. “We need to rebuild in a way that addresses that and recognizes that. How do we make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate in that growth?”

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the only African American currently in a statewide office in Virginia, is expected to enter the race in the next few months. He declined to speculate on McAuliffe’s role in the race, saying only that the conventional wisdom about who’s strong and who’s not doesn’t always hold up.

“Oftentimes what the voters think, feel and believe is drastically different than what insider politicians and power brokers and money interests think,” Fairfax said in an interview. “Democracy belongs to the voters.”

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides over the Senate on the opening day of the 2020 session of the General Assembly.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides over the Senate on the opening day of the 2020 session of the General Assembly. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As someone who has already run statewide and won, Fairfax’s prospects for higher office appeared to vanish last year when two women came forward to accuse him of sexual assault, allegations he adamantly denies. He said he doesn’t expect voters to tune him out because of that, pointing to the unproven assault allegation against Biden that many Democrats seemed to dismiss due to a lack of evidence.

“Now he’s the nominee for president. And I believe he will be the next president,” Fairfax said. “Voters want a politics of uplift.”

In 2018, Attorney General Mark Herring announced he intended to run for governor. But his plans became less clear after he admitted last year to wearing blackface in college. A McAuliffe candidacy could make his path to the nomination even more uncertain.

McAuliffe’s PAC would not make the former governor available for an interview for this story.

As he considered running for president last year, McAuliffe faced similar questions about whether a well-off White man was the type of person Democratic voters were looking to to lead them out of the Trump era.

There may not be oxygen. … We may be in a place that, you know, people talk about identity politics all the time, person of color or women, we don’t know,” McAuliffe said when the issue came up in an interview with conservative radio host John Fredericks. “But you don’t know unless you give it a try.”