Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe will be the commonwealth’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, CNN projected on Tuesday, besting four other primary challengers as he seeks to become the first person in decades to serve multiple terms as top executive of a commonwealth that bars governors from consecutive terms.
McAuliffe’s win sets a general election between the former governor and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin. The race in Virginia, one of two states that hold off-year elections for governor after presidential elections, will be closely watched in Washington, DC, and beyond as it is often seen as a bellwether for the subsequent midterms.
McAuliffe wasted no time going after the Republican nominee on Tuesday, using part of his victory speech to link Youngkin to former President Donald Trump — a preview of what will be most of the former governor’s general election message.
“We cannot let Glenn Youngkin do to Virginia what Donald Trump has done to our country,” McAuliffe said during his speech, slamming Youngkin for saying Trump is a significant part of the reason he wants to be governor.
“Think about that,” McAuliffe said incredulously. “With all the issues you area facing … the reason he is running is because of Donald Trump, are you kidding me?”
McAuliffe added later in the remarks: “Glenn Youngkin is running for governor because of Donald Trump. I am running for governor because of you.”
Republicans responded to McAuliffe’s win by casting him as the ultimate political insider, something that contrasts with Youngkin’s effort to cast himself as an outsider.
“The contrast between career politician and establishment insider Terry McAuliffe and successful businessman and political outsider Glenn Youngkin is stark,” said Republican Governors Association Executive Director Dave Rexrode. “The RGA looks forward to exposing Terry McAuliffe’s litany of broken promises and misdeeds between now and November.”
Since the 1970s, the winner of Virginia’s gubernatorial election came from the party opposite the one that had won the White House — the one exception was when McAuliffe was elected in 2013 a year after Barack Obama had won his second term, a fact the former governor has often used on the campaign trail.
McAuliffe won this year’s primary by besting a quartet of other Democrats, including former Virginia Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and Del. Lee Carter, both of whom attacked McAuliffe from the left, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who have argued they were more prepared to succeed Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
The McAuliffe win is not a total surprise. The former governor entered the race as the clear front-runner, boasting strong fundraising numbers, a long list of endorsements and near-total name recognition. There were few indications headed into Election Day that the former governor had fallen from that perch.
There was some hope from McAuliffe’s challengers that Virginians would have become tired of longtime politicians like McAuliffe vying for their old jobs, especially in a state like Virginia where incumbents rarely run for governor again. More progressive candidates like Foy looked to attack McAuliffe for just that, casting him as a has-been politician who failed to deliver on his promises during his first four-year term.
“He had his chance, and he failed the people of Virginia. So why does he deserve a second chance,” Foy said in the final debate earlier this month.
But a series of factors, from an election-wary electorate to a field that failed to consolidate the anti-McAuliffe vote, had that argument falling on deaf ears. And McAuliffe, comfortable in his positioning for much of the campaign, largely avoided skirmishes with other Democrats, instead focusing on Youngkin.
McAuliffe also signaled after the race was called on Tuesday that he plans to forcefully run on both Northam’s record and President Joe Biden’s leadership in the White House.
“Thanks to the great leadership of Gov. Ralph Northam and President Joe Biden,” McAuliffe bellowed in the middle of his speech, lauding their leadership on combating the coronavirus.
The former governor told CNN that he had spoken with Biden shortly after the Democratic primary was called.
“We had a good chat,” McAuliffe said, adding that Biden had told him that he was “all in” on helping McAuliffe’s campaign for a second term and that the President had pledged “anything we can do to help.”
In an interview with CNN ahead of the primary, McAuliffe had continued his focus on Youngkin, admitting that he was worried the personally wealthy former CEO of the private equity firm Carlyle Group “is going to flood the zone with money,” but adding that he more than welcomed Trump’s involvement in the race.
“I would pay for the fuel to get Donald Trump here,” McAuliffe said with a laugh, noting that Trump had endorsed Youngkin shortly after he won the nomination. “Absolutely, I will gas up the plane.”
That strategy reflects a confidence in a changed Virginia, a state that was once a Republican bastion. Since former President Barack Obama won Virginia in both 2008 and 2012, the state has moved to the left, a shift that was cemented when the party eventually won control of the Virginia General Assembly in 2019, giving Democrats full control of the state’s government for the first time in more than two decades.
Trump’s involvement in the gubernatorial race would undoubtedly engage the Republican base, but Democrats know that any images with Trump and Youngkin together would become staples in McAuliffe’s message. And they could be powerful: Trump lost the commonwealth in both 2016 and 2020.
The general election between McAuliffe and Youngkin will also be the first test for how Democrats invigorate their base without Trump either in office or on the ballot. McAuliffe told CNN Democratic engagement without Trump concerns him, arguing that while some Democrats may look at Virginia’s recent electoral results and believe a general election won’t be that close, they are wrong.
“We had Donald Trump here for four years. He drove Democratic turnout,” McAuliffe said. “Donald Trump is not president anymore. … It’s going to be very close. It’s going to be nip and tuck. This is going to be a battle. … You bet it’s going to be close.”
Northam echoed this sentiment in a brief interview with CNN after the race was called Tuesday.
“It’s not a done deal,” Northam said of the general election. “We are in good position as Democrats. Virginia is getting bluer every year but we are not going to take anything for granted.”
And then, in a preview of what Democrats will be doing often in Virginia, the governor pivoted to link Youngkin to Trump.
“Glenn Youngkin, he has been endorsed by Trump,” Northam said. “People’s memory is good in Virginia. We are not Trump fans in Virginia.”
This story has been updated with additional details Tuesday.