On Wednesday, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe officially announced he’s running for a second term, launching a rare comeback bid pundits and political strategists say will be difficult, but not impossible, for other gubernatorial hopefuls to stop.
“Certainly he comes into the race in a very formidable position,” said veteran political commentator Bob Holsworth. “He’s a popular former governor. He has tons of resources. And he loves to campaign. At the same time, the open question in this campaign is whether he is the person for the moment.”
Long an open secret in state politics, McAuliffe made his 2021 campaign official in an appearance at a Richmond elementary school, where he was joined by a group of Black leaders. Among them were Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who will serve as co-chairs of McAuliffe’s campaign.
It appeared to be a nod to the complicated racial and gender dynamics of the 2021 Democratic field, which already includes Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, both of whom have the potential to be the first woman elected governor in Virginia and the first Black woman elected governor of any state. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the only Black person currently elected to statewide office, is also seeking the Democratic nomination.
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said he thinks it’s accurate to call McAuliffe the presumptive frontrunner in the Democratic primary, partly because McAuliffe’s been “shaping the behavior” of the other candidates for months. But the other candidates getting in early, Kidd said, may sharpen the question of whether McAuliffe, last elected in 2013, is the right candidate for 2021.
“This is the era of George Floyd, the era of Black Lives Matter, the era of people of color being able to express their voice and sort of take their place in society,” Kidd said. “I think he gets that’s sort of conceptually his big challenge.”
As a former Democratic National Committee chairman and close ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe has a national profile and prodigious fundraising abilities.
Running as a quasi-incumbent who already did the job for four years, McAuliffe brings a level of statewide name recognition the other candidates lack, a challenge they’ll have to overcome by introducing themselves to rank-and-file Democrats who aren’t close followers of the state legislature.
“Terry is almost universally known by Democratic voters,” said a Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the race. “His base is in Northern Virginia. It’s going to be extremely tough, especially in a COVID world, to campaign and try to break through.”
Current Gov. Ralph Northam, who, with the help of a Democratic-led General Assembly, has signed reams of progressive legislation that would’ve been unthinkable in the McAuliffe era when Republicans held the legislature, cannot run for re-election due to Virginia’s term limits.
At his announcement, McAuliffe highlighted education as a top policy priority, promising the “biggest, boldest investment in education in Virginia history.” Specifically, he said he’s planning to put an extra $2 billion a year into education to fund teacher pay raises, address segregation in schools and end racial achievement gaps, expand preschool availability for at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, provide every student with internet access and improve workforce development programs.
“The one thing we cannot afford to do is to keep Black and Brown and rural children from being able to access what they need to get a quality education,” McAuliffe said. “We need to make sure that every child is prepared for 21st-century jobs. Virginians are desperately ready for this.”
Both Democrats and Republicans have recently worked to increase education funding and raise teacher pay, but many of those efforts were put on hold earlier this year amid pandemic-related uncertainty over the health of the state budget. McAuliffe’s campaign explained that he’d consider new revenue from legalized marijuana sales and casinos to boost education funding.
McAuliffe also touted his efforts to bring businesses into the state and restore the voting rights of people convicted of felonies, a move he characterized as striking a blow against racist laws from Virginia’s past.
Asked what he’d say to Democratic voters who wish he had stayed out of the race and used his considerable resources to allow Virginia to make history by electing a Black woman as governor, McAuliffe said he’s “running on a big agenda of thinking big and being bold.”
He then deferred to Lucas, who said McAuliffe has “a track record of being responsive to Black and Brown communities.”
“We’re standing with him based on what he has done and what we know he can do,” Lucas said. “This has nothing to do with race.”
Some see it differently.
“If the narrative becomes Terry is just standing in the way of a qualified Black woman and that’s it, he could really be toast,” the Democratic strategist said. “And no amount of Louise Lucas quotes are going to pull his ass out of the fire on that one.”
On the Republican side, the contest is off to a chaotic start, with Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, threatening to run as an independent after the party chose to pick its nominee via convention instead of a more open primary. Former House Speaker Kirk Cox, the only other Republican currently in the field, has said Chase will “fade from relevance” if she follows through with her plan. But after more than a decade of losses in statewide races, even a small split in the Republican vote could wreck the GOP’s chances of winning back the Executive Mansion.
Chase has recently been encouraging her supporters to contact Republican officials to urge them to reconsider the convention decision.
McClellan, Carroll Foy and Fairfax all took slightly different tacks in welcoming McAuliffe to the race.
In a public strategy memo, the McClellan campaign argued that, for all the “bluster” of his announcement, McAuliffe underperformed in his first run for governor in 2009, when he lost a Democratic primary to Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who went on to lose to former GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell. In beating former GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to win his first term in 2013, the campaign said, McAuliffe “barely won” a contest with low turnout compared to 1989, when former Gov. Doug Wilder made history by becoming America’s first elected Black governor.
Carroll Foy drew a contrast with her own personal story as someone who struggled growing up in the impoverished city of Petersburg, calling McAuliffe “emblematic of the status quo that has simply left too many people behind.”
Fairfax, who is still trying to move past the sexual assault allegations leveled against him in 2019, didn’t opine on McAuliffe directly, saying he’s proud of what Democrats have accomplished in the past three years, after McAuliffe’s term ended.
Holsworth said it’s fair to call McAuliffe the favorite, but “far too early to anoint him as the nominee given the quality of his challengers.”
“In conventional times you would think that McAuliffe would have the kind of advantage that people would not be able to overcome,” he said. “But this is an unconventional race for the Democrats in an enormously sort of challenging time for the state and the country.”