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What The Virginia Governor’s Race Says About Where The Two Parties Are Headed

Over the past two decades, Virginia has transformed from a Republican-leaning state to one that usually votes Democratic statewide. Nevertheless, the GOP hopes to win back Virginia’s governorship this November, and having held full control over the state legislature from 2014 until the 2019 election, that’s not an outlandish goal in a state with such a purplish-blue electoral bent.

As such, the two parties are currently duking it out over who their nominee should be, with many of the same trends we see nationally playing out at the state level. For Republicans, that means a debate over how best to pick a nominee as the candidates’ rhetoric demonstrates the lasting pull of former President Trump as well as the new priorities of the GOP more broadly. And with the candidacy of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the Democratic race, that in part mirrors the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential primary, in which an older white man and establishment heavy-hitter faced multiple women and people of color; ultimately in 2020, Biden won partly because of fears primary voters had around “electability” and who could defeat Trump, or in this case, “Trumpism.”

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Virginia’s recent political leanings may give Democrats the upper hand, but Republicans might benefit from a friendlier electoral environment because of the potential for a backlash against President Biden and the Democrats. After all, there’s a history of that. From 1977 to 2017, there was only one election — 2013 — in which the party in the White House won Virginia’s governorship. So national Republicans will certainly hope anti-Democratic sentiments show themselves in Virginia this November and act as a harbinger of things to come in 2022.

Republicans: Going in for Trump — but perhaps not quite all-in

But Virginia Republicans have had little to cheer about recently, having lost all 13 contests for statewide office held since 2012.1 During this drought, they’ve also flipped back and forth on how best to pick their nominee: a primary or a convention

Primaries, with their broader electorate, traditionally have been seen as more likely to choose nominees who have more appeal with the general electorate, while conventions with their conservative-activist appeal have tended to favor more ideological candidates. But that doesn’t appear to reflect the state party’s thinking this year. State party leaders decided to go with a convention in December, in large part to prevent one of their most ideologically divisive candidates from winning: state Sen. Amanda Chase.

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No stranger to controversy — she’s embraced the moniker “Trump in heels” — Chase had the Virginia GOP worried she’d rally enough support to win with a plurality — after all, she led the Republican field in two January polls. But given Chase’s toxic relationship with her own party — she left her party’s Senate caucus in 2019 and some of her Republican colleagues supported a censure vote against her in January — she might have trouble attracting support from a majority of convention delegates to win the nomination, especially in a race with 10 Republican candidates, around half of whom are serious contenders. 

Of course, it’s possible Chase could still attract enough support to win the nomination. She’s doubling down on an anti-establishment message that the party tried to rig the process against her — even threatening at one point to leave the GOP. But what’s more likely to happen is that delegates will pick one of the other candidates, who might not be “Trump in heels,” but are not exactly shying away from issues that appeal to the party’s pro-Trump base either. 

Take the widespread Republican belief in “The Big Lie,” or Trump’s false claims about election fraud in the 2020 presidential race. While other GOP contenders aren’t necessarily echoing Chase’s claim that the election was “hijacked,” just one — long-time Del. Kirk Cox — has said Biden legitimately won the election. Meanwhile, the other candidates are playing right into Republican doubts about the electoral system with their plans and messaging. Notably, wealthy businessman Glenn Youngkin has launched an “election integrity task force” as a major part of his campaign, while tech entrepreneur Pete Snyder has also released a detailed election security plan.

The catch in Virginia, though, is that a more aggressive Trump-style candidate might play poorly because of the state’s Democratic lean. So some GOP candidates are toning down the messaging, although they’re still drilling into the same themes that national Republicans are fine-tuning ahead of the 2022 midterms, such as fears around “cancel culture,” online censorship and school reopenings. Take Cox, a former speaker of the House of Delegates and holder of a suburban seat that Trump failed to carry in either 2016 or 2020. Running under the label “Conservative Winner” to promote his electability, Cox has attacked “cancel culture” while promising to hold “Big Tech accountable” to protect free speech. Meanwhile, Snyder has primarily focused his campaign message of reopening schools and businesses, using the social media hashtag “#OpenOurSchools” as part of his outreach efforts. And Youngkin has leaned into his image as an outsider who isn’t just another politician, having never before run for office.

The convention battle isn’t until May 8,2 which leaves plenty of time for things to change, but right now, the takeaway is this: Chase is an underdog versus the rest of the field for her party’s nomination. But her combative form of politics and embrace of Trump’s politics offers an important lesson: Republican voters everywhere like it and it’s shaping what our elections will look like in 2022 and beyond. The question now is to what lengths will the Virginia GOP go to balance its Trumpian impulses with messaging that might attract more voters in the middle, which will likely be necessary if Republicans want to end their losing streak in purplish-blue Virginia.

Democrats: A familiar front-runner and familiar party divides

On the Democratic side, über-establishment candidate McAuliffe is trying to win back his old office, having won the governorship in 2013 and serving until now-Gov. Ralph Northam succeeded him following the 2017 election. (Virginia doesn’t allow elected governors to immediately seek reelection.) So if McAuliffe were to win, he’d join an exclusive club. Only one other Virginia governor has ever won two nonconsecutive terms: Mills Godwin, who won as a conservative Democrat in 1965 and then as a Republican in 1973.

But McAuliffe’s entry into the contest has raised the ire of some Democrats — including former Gov. Doug Wilder, the first African American ever elected governor in the United States — because McAuliffe, with his high profile and $5.5 million war chest, may swamp multiple candidates of color in the party’s June 8 primary. Most notably, two Black women in the state legislature who have thrown their hats into the ring: state Sen. Jenniffer McClellan, who’d been positioning for years to run, and now-former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, who resigned her seat in December to focus on her gubernatorial campaign. On top of this, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Black man, is also running, although his candidacy looks to have been heavily damaged by past allegations of rape that first broke back in 2019 while Northam experienced a scandal of his own, involving blackface in a school yearbook.

But as an older white man facing a number of candidates of color, McAuliffe’s presence in the race certainly raises the question of “electability” — or that he’s more likely to win because he’s a white man. As McAuliffe himself likes to point out, he’s the only candidate to win Virginia’s governorship in the past four decades while his party was in the White House, having won the 2013 general election while Barack Obama was president. Debate over electability was a common theme in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, though, and if McAuliffe’s candidacy is any indication, it’s one that will continue to be an issue for Democrats moving forward.

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However, perhaps reminiscent of Biden in 2020, McAuliffe also has meaningful support from Black Democrats, including more endorsements from Black members of the state legislature than either McClellan or Carroll Foy. (McAuliffe’s record on voting rights, a hot-button issue, might also help soften some criticisms that he’s crowded out candidates of color as he restored the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of convicted felons during his governorship, including those of many African Americans.) And like Biden, McAuliffe is also unquestionably the best-known Democratic candidate. His high level of name recognition has certainly helped him start out with sizable leads in early public and internal campaign polling, too.

But it’s not just name recognition; there’s also a question of just how progressive of a candidate Virginians want. Historically, establishment-oriented politicians have tended to win in Virginia, at least statewide, which is good news for McAuliffe, who leans center-left. But this year, McAuliffe faces at least one serious challenge from his left in Carroll Foy, who has endorsements from multiple labor groups, the pro-Green New Deal Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats. (To a smaller extent, McClellan may also be running to McAuliffe’s left, although she has more establishment-oriented credentials and has touted herself as a “practical progressive.”)

For his part, McAuliffe has recognized that progressives have become a stronger political force in Virginia, and he has even promised “big, bold” plans to address inequities in education and promote a clean energy economy. But progressives in the state have still largely been critical of him. Justice Democrats have argued that Virginia “cannot go back” to the “pro-corporate policies” of past administrations, while Carroll Foy has attacked McAuliffe as “a former political party boss and multimillionaire” who is out of touch with everyday Virginians. However, Carroll Foy could face some criticism herself as she isn’t even the most left-wing candidate in this field. A fifth candidate, Del. Lee Carter, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and could also win some support on the left.

Ultimately, McAuliffe is betting that his winning track record and relatively popular governorship, along with some strategic tacks to the left, will make him more attractive to Democratic primary voters than his opponents — an approach that worked for Biden in the party’s 2020 nomination contest. And provided Virginia doesn’t swing too far to the right before November, that might be just enough to put McAuliffe on course to make an unusual return to Virginia’s governorship.

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  1. President and U.S. Senate in 2012; governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2013; Senate in 2014; president in 2016; governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2017; Senate in 2018; and president and Senate in 2020.

  2. This will not be a normal convention, though: To avoid violating public gathering rules, Republicans will use an “unassembled convention” in which delegates will make their pick with ranked-choice voting at close to 40 locations around the state.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.