Fundraising, Name Recognition Shape Virginia Democratic Primary Races

A familiar face leads in fundraising in the race to secure the Democratic nomination for Virginia’s gubernatorial election, one of three statewide contests this year.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe walks up to the stage during a campaign rally in Norfolk, Va., in March 2020 as he prepares to introduce then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia Democrats pick their statewide candidates for the 2021 elections in a primary next week, and final fundraising numbers released Wednesday morning offer some insight into the crowded field. 

At the top of the ticket, former Virginia governor and ex-Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe leads with just under $15 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan political money tracker. His top donor was his own PAC, Common Good VA, with over $1.5 million.

“It would be a shock if McAuliffe were not far ahead of his Democratic rivals,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Farnsworth said McAuliffe’s history in office and with the national Democratic fundraising group makes him ripe for high-dollar donations. He’s also a favorite in the primary race thanks to name recognition. 

But that hasn’t stopped four other candidates from vying for the chance to face off against the GOP gubernatorial candidate in November.

Former Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy placed second in fundraising with about $4.7 million raised and current state Senator Jennifer McClellan came in third with about $2.7 million. Both Black, female candidates were seen as potential frontrunners early in the primary race, but McAuliffe’s links to Virginia’s political machine netted him endorsements from leaders across the state after he entered the race late last year.

Despite progressive candidates pushing the race to the left – including Delegate Lee Carter, a self-described Democratic Socialist – Farnsworth thinks Democrats’ history of statewide losses before the Blue Wave ushered in during the Donald Trump presidency will assure the tried, tested and more moderate McAuliffe a win.

“In other states the most liberal candidate would be more likely, but, perhaps because Democrats have lost so many races in the past, they remain skittish,” the professor said.

The power shift to the left, which includes Democratic control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the Legislature, has made room for massive change in the former capital of the Confederacy, but it’s also given fodder to Republicans who have accused the new majority of abusing its authority.  

The fourth candidate in the Democratic primary for governor is current Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who has raised the second lowest amount of money so far, ahead of only Carter. Fairfax has pressed forward with his campaign despite accusations of sexual assault by two women.

McAuliffe held the state’s top executive office from 2014 to 2018 and was unable to seek reelection at the time because Virginia is the only state in the country that forbids consecutive runs for governor. However, the law says nothing about nonconsecutive terms.  

If McAuliffe secures the nomination and wins in November, he’ll be just the third Virginia governor to serve twice since 1830.

Also on the ballot is the lieutenant governor’s primary race, which has a similarly crowded field. Roanoke-area Delegate Sam Rasoul leads the Democratic pack financially with just under $2 million raised so far. He’s also garnered some big-name endorsements, and polling gives him a 10% lead over the other primary candidates, though most Democratic voters are undecided.

However, two Delegates from Northern Virginia, Mark Levine and Hala Ayala, aren’t trailing far behind Rasoul in fundraising and are generating their own buzz with the hopes of winning the nomination for the state’s second-highest executive office, which oversees the state Senate and has a tie-breaking vote. 

Farnsworth argues the many names at the top of the ticket drowned out efforts for those below to stand out. Rasoul’s fundraising has helped him get his name in front of voters, a valuable asset in an off-year election that often sees reduced turnout from a less inspired voting base. 

“This June everyone is thinking about going on vacation or seeing family after a year,” he said. “Most Virginians are not really thinking about the Democratic primary.”

Last on the primary ballot is the Democratic nomination for attorney general. Incumbent Mark Herring has maintained a fundraising lead over Norfolk-area Delegate Jay Jones throughout the race and Wednesday’s numbers show that trend has continued.

Herring, who made headlines by refusing the defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage and suing the Trump administration over numerous perceived constitutional violations, is vying for a third term. Farnsworth thinks his battles with Trump could be valuable on the campaign trail after the state went for Biden by 10 points in 2020. 

“The Trump presidency has reduced the number of persuadable voters in this country to close to zero,” he said. “People will vote for or against the party that they identify with, regardless of who’s on the ballot.”

When Virginia Democrats pick their nominees next Tuesday, it’ll be based on the choices of voters like Erica Sklar. 

A recent transplant to Virginia from Seattle, this is Sklar’s first primary in the commonwealth. While she voted early for Carroll Foy, Rasoul and Jones, she’s ready to support whoever crosses the finish line. 

“As a progressive we often hold our nose and vote in November,” she admitted, noting McAuliffe’s late entry into the race sidelined two prominent Black women who could have been the state’s first female governor of color. 

“That’s the choice that you make because one is better than the other,” she said of Republican candidates who don’t share her values. 

But if money makes the candidate, the Virginia Republican Party’s gubernatorial nominee is well on his way to prove his worth.

Glenn Youngkin, a former Carlyle Group executive who won the nomination at a convention last month, has raised about $16 million, including a $12 million loan of his own money.

Youngkin took aim at his most likely Democratic opponent in the fall in a statement Wednesday on the fundraising numbers.

“Unlike Terry McAuliffe, I’m a political outsider and real business leader,” the GOP nominee said. “Our campaign has received an outpouring of support from people in Virginia and across the country because they understand the opportunity we have this year to rebuild our commonwealth, reignite our economy, restore excellence in education, and reestablish our commitment to public safety.”

Farnsworth thinks Democratic concerns could be overblown, but argued the best way to lock in a win is to paint Youngkin as a Trump surrogate. The largely unknown CEO has spent his post-convention campaign frequenting Fox News shows and Trump endorsed his bid shortly after his nomination was secured. But that may backfire.

“Perhaps some of those traditionally Republican districts are ripe for flipping back, but Republican fortunes depend – in swing districts and statewide – on a silent President Trump,” he said. “The more he’s in the political narrative, the more the Democratic base is energized and that energized base wins elections.”

Virginia’s Democratic primary is Tuesday, June 8. Early voting began April 24 and ends Saturday, June 5.

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