Glenn Youngkin, Terry McAuliffe
Candidates for governor of Virginia: Businessman Glenn Youngkin (left). Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (right). Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and World Economic Forum / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A microcosm of next year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election is playing out in Virginia, where former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a centrist Democrat, is facing off against deep-pocketed Republican newcomer and Trump devotee Glenn Youngkin in a gubernatorial contest already marked by negative ads and the potential for record campaign spending.

The results of this fall’s election in a state that has been trending blue could very well signal the trajectory of both the Democratic and Republican parties nationwide. 

In presidential elections, Virginia was reliably Republican until the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, with population growth in metropolitan areas, as well as increases in the Black and Latino and immigrant populations, keeping the state in the Democratic column ever since. 

Historically, however, Virginia has often elected governors from the opposite party of the one currently in the White House. In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie by more than 200,000 votes. The turnout was the highest recorded in the past 20 years of Virginia gubernatorial election history. McAuliffe was elected in 2014 during Obama’s presidency. But his predecessor was Republican Robert McDonnell, who was elected in 2009 during Obama’s first term.

Virginia is the only state that prevents governors from serving two consecutive terms. The lack of incumbents in each election and Virginia’s status as a purple state make its gubernatorial races exceptionally reflective of America’s current political zeitgeist. 

“Any time you have a race that determines both the executive branch, leadership, and the state legislature in a state like Virginia, it just inherently matters a lot,” said David Jones, a professor of political science at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. 

Trump’s surprise victory nationally in 2016 and ensuing chaotic presidency alerted Virginia citizens to the significance of voting, according to Jones, who said, “I think … the last few elections, especially the 2020 race, was a reminder that turnout matters, and that elections can be closer than we expect.”

The 2021 Race

With the backing of the party establishment, McAuliffe won the Democratic primary in June by a decisive 62.2 percent, beating state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and House of Delegates member Jennifer Caroll Foy, both of whom would have been the first Black woman to be a governor in the United States. 

“This race is a reminder that Democrats often nominate the establishment, safe candidate,” Jones said. 

On the Republican side, Youngkin defeated six rivals at the party nominating convention in May. Despite his support for Trump, he was the CEO of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, long associated with the national Republican Party establishment of both presidents Bush. The Carlyle Group was formerly the world’s largest private equity firm, with over $260 billion in assets, and specializes in “global private equity, global credit, and investment solutions.” 

Youngkin, whose stock in The Carlyle Group is now worth more than $350 million, is largely self-funding his campaign. He considers himself an “outsider” and touts his support for gun rights and law enforcement. A self-proclaimed Christian, he is anti-abortion and is opposed to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and has taken up the national Republican crusade against teaching critical race theory in public schools. Also in keeping with national Republican trends, he questions the results of the 2020 election and has proposed creating an“Election Integrity Task Force,” which calls for mandatory photo IDs, an application to prove citizenship, and two witness signatures in order to cast ballots. 

McAuliffe’s policy proposals include gun regulation, reducing racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, supporting Medicaid, environmental issues, affordable housing, and women’s equality. 

Black Women Senators: And Then There Were None

Financially, while Youngkin’s net worth allows him to self-fund, McAuliffe has a background as a fundraiser for the Clintons and for the Democratic Party before becoming a politician. McAuliffe’s funding comes from various labor unions, businessmen with Clinton ties such as Doug Band and Ron Burkle, and billionaire Sean Parker.

We may get a chance to see the two contenders in action, as they are trying to come to an agreement on a debate later this month. Right now, McAuliffe has agreed to the terms, but Youngkin is holding back, over concerns that the moderator donated $250 to a Haiti relief fund orchestrated by the Clintons in 2010.

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