The former governor of Virginia, four years removed from the end of his first term, is vying for another shot at leading the commonwealth, running as the closest thing to an incumbent in a place that bars governors from serving successive terms. McAuliffe enters the race as the clear frontrunner, buoyed by a significant fundraising advantage, a who’s who list of endorsements and near total name recognition.
But both Democratic politics and Virginia have changed since McAuliffe’s successful 2013 run, a shift exemplified by the Democratic legislature — which went blue in 2019 with McAuliffe’s help — moving to abolish the death penalty, tighten gun laws and reckon with the legacy of the Confederacy in a commonwealth closely tied to the Civil War South.
With less than three months until the Democratic gubernatorial primary, McAuliffe — who faced no primary challenge eight years ago — is now being pushed by younger, more liberal challengers to explain how a leader synonymous with the political establishment reflects the future of the commonwealth and not the politics of a bygone era.
The anti-McAuliffe charge ahead of the June 8 primary has been led by former Virginia delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Del. Lee Carter, two gubernatorial candidates who have been unabashedly critical of the former governor. Two other Democrats — state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — haven’t been as pointed in their criticism of McAuliffe, but they have all echoed a similar message: McAuliffe’s time has passed.
“He was the right candidate for that moment. He was the right governor for that moment,” said McClellan, referring to McAuliffe’s 2013 bid, which she supported. “Times have changed. Virginia has changed.”
McAuliffe, a figure whose story in the Democratic Party is defined by millions of dollars raised, the Clintons and a tenure as chair of the Democratic National Committee, dismisses any suggestion he isn’t the future of the party. He points out that even after his time as governor, Virginia Democrats called on him to lead the effort that eventually won control of the Virginia General Assembly, giving the party full control of the state’s government for the first time in more than two decades.
“I don’t pay any attention to them,” he said of his opponents suggesting his time has come and gone. “I’m laying out my own plan on why I’m running.”
McAuliffe has already flooded his Democratic opponents in three things: Money, policy and endorsements.
The prolific fundraiser fired a warning shot early in the campaign when he announced he had raised $6.1 million in 2020, a staggering number that dwarfed his opponents’ own efforts. And when he announced in December, his candidacy came along with a long list of endorsements, including a number of high-profile Democrats who serve with some of his primary challengers.
Since then, McAuliffe has rolled out policy after policy, aiming to both burnish his progressive credentials and argue that because Virginia is now in Democratic control, something the governor did not enjoy during his tenure, he will be able to get more done.
“I leaned in (as governor), but I had a Republican legislature. Now, with a Democratic legislature, all the big things that need to be fixed, we can get done,” he said. “Heck, I just warming up. You give me a Democratic legislature, there is no stopping me.”
‘The appetite for career politicians… is long gone’
McAuliffe’s desire to run for a second term as governor has long been one of the worst kept secrets in the commonwealth. The former chair of the DNC and CNN political commentator relished the job, often joking about how his election — after Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson served as Virginia’s first and second governors — was a sign of American exceptionalism.
If McAuliffe were to win in November, however, he would do something neither Henry nor Jefferson ever did: Serve two four-year terms as the commonwealth’s chief executive. The Virginia constitution prohibits governors from serving two successive terms and very few Virginia politicians have done so. The last person to do it was Mills Godwin, a segregationist who won as a Democrat in 1966 and as a Republican in 1974.
McAuliffe argues that even though he feels like he accomplished everything he could as governor — “I don’t know if you could find (a regret). I mean, I worked like a dog,” he said — it just makes sense for him to reprise a role that is part Virginia’s chief executive, part commonwealth cheerleader.
Virginians “know I can get things done,” McAuliffe said. “I did it before and they all know with a Democratic legislature, boy, I feel bad for those other 49 states cause I’m telling you Virginia is going to lead the country.”
But his third run at governor (he tried and failed to win the party’s nomination in 2009) also means standing in the way of possible history: If either McClellan or Foy were to win, she would become both the first woman to lead Virginia and the first Black woman governor in US history.
The significance of making such history, especially in a state that once housed the Capitol of the South during the Civil War, is powerful to both women.
“I feel the weight of it because… to know what my family has gone through, the fights that my parents and my grandparents and my great grandparents had to fight, to know that I’m still fighting those fights and I need to keep my children from fighting those same fights, I feel the weight of that,” said McClellan, growing emotional as she described the potential for history. “I feel the weight of knowing I am running for a position in a system that was never built for me.”
To McAuliffe’s opponents, the reasoning for his candidacy is deeply flawed. And no candidate is more eager to go after McAuliffe than Foy, who resigned her assembly seat in December to focus on her gubernatorial run.
“I can’t allow Terry McAuliffe to run a status quo race, while he romanticizes his time as governor,” said Foy, who has argued her experience as one of the first women to every graduate from Virginia Military Institute and a mother of two who still struggles with child care and student loan debt is more representative of the commonwealth.
Foy has attacked McAuliffe on everything from donations he has taken to deals he made as governor to the fact he did little to address Confederate monuments. But her overarching criticism is that she represents Virginia’s most progressive future, while McAuliffe represents the past.
“The appetite for career politicians who have continued to maintain the status quo that has hurt so many Virginians is long gone,” she said in an interview.
But Foy is not alone in trying to run on McAuliffe’s left. Lee Carter, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist state delegate with deep ties to the Bernie Sanders network of supporters and liberal organizations, has begun to lambast the former governor as not progressive enough.
“I see him as the guy that got us here and that’s in very, very real ways,” Carter told CNN, hammering McAuliffe for his support of pipelines through the state and economic policies that focused more on the rich than the poor. “We’ve spent the last eight years fighting against some of the worst things from McAuliffe’s time as governor.”
Neither McClellan nor Fairfax has been as direct in their criticism of McAuliffe as Foy and Carter, but their differences are primarily in tone, not substance.
“The voters decide what they are looking for in their candidates and in their visions for the future. But I do think it is very clear that people want their leaders to be focused on a vision for the future,” said Fairfax.
For Fairfax, opposing McAuliffe is personal. During a chaotic period in Virginia government, Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two women in 2019. Both women still stand by their allegations.
It is apparent that it still bothers the lieutenant governor and people close to him that McAuliffe, by then the former governor, had quickly called for him to step down due to the allegations.
Voters are “totally against the politics of the past and the traditional tactics of personal destruction that we have seen govern for too long,” Fairfax said, a not-so-subtle nod to McAuliffe.
‘People are looking for tested leadership’
“People are looking for tested leadership,” said Louise Lucas, the president pro tempore of the Virginia state Senate and a McAuliffe campaign co-chair. “They need people with experience who can hit the ground running day one, who doesn’t have to try to cultivate all those relationships.”
Referring to Biden winning in 2020: “That in and of itself tell me people are looking for tested leadership.”
Virginia overwhelmingly backed Biden during the 2020 primary, selecting him over liberal leaders like Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And the state, which was once considered a battleground but has moved towards Democrats in recent years, would later back Biden over Trump by 10 percentage points in November. And McAuliffe is very close, both politically and personally, with the President.
Comparisons to the 2020 presidential election, however, ignore the fact that Democrats were as motivated to vote against Trump as they were to vote for Biden.
“That’s so simplistic, I don’t even know what to say,” said McClellan. “Biden won in large part because he was the candidate who had the most government experience and the most experience solving people’s problems. … I have more state government experience and public service experience addressing the needs of Virginia than all of my opponents combined, including Terry McAuliffe.”
Foy was even more pointed, comparing McAuliffe’s candidacy to Hillary Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential run.
“The comparison I hear about is Barack Obama and Hillary,” she said. “How you had people saying that there’s a person who is inevitable, who is a money machine, who has been around politics for a very long time and therefore everyone needs to make way.”
The issue that these anti-McAuliffe candidates run into is space. People close to McAuliffe cheered when Carter entered the race, believing he will further box out candidates like Foy. And the longer the four challengers stay in, the harder it will be for either candidate to make up for their lack of statewide name recognition or consolidate the anti-McAuliffe support.
“If you believed that was so important, wouldn’t you gather together and consolidate your vote?” asked Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Sabato concluded that, along with Virginia Democrats’ desire to win, will help McAuliffe.
“Because Democrats lost for so long in Virginia… Democrats still have a minority mentality even though they are in the majority and because of that, they do tend to make practical decision in primaries,” he said. “That may be the best thing McAuliffe has, other than incumbency and money, on his behalf.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Glenn Youngkin.