Democratic veteran Terry McAuliffe will face Republican former Carlyle chief executive Glenn Youngkin in this year’s Virginia gubernatorial election, a contest that will be seen as a bellwether of the US political climate less than a year into Joe Biden’s presidency.
Just two governorships — Virginia and New Jersey — will be up for grabs in November. While Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy is expected to be re-elected in New Jersey, analysts said the Virginia contest was a “toss-up” that would attract significant national interest.
“This is the marquee race of this year,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, noting that governor’s races in the state, which are held a year after a presidential election, have historically been seen as a referendum on the party in the White House.
This year’s contest will be viewed as an important first electoral test for Biden and Democrats heading into next year’s midterm elections, when control of both chambers of Congress as well as dozens of governorships, will be contested. It will also mark an opportunity for Republicans to win back the support of moderate voters who have abandoned the party out of distaste for Donald Trump.
McAuliffe, who served as governor of Virginia from 2014-2018, won the Democratic party’s statewide primary to become his party’s nominee on Tuesday, coming out on top of a field of five candidates. The Democratic incumbent, Ralph Northam, cannot seek re-election under state laws that prohibit office holders from serving consecutive terms.
McAuliffe, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee and longtime ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, will now square off against Youngkin in November’s election.
Youngkin, who has never held elected office, left Carlyle last year after 25 years at the private equity firm and launched his bid for governor in January. He won the Republican party’s nomination after a convention last month, and secured an endorsement from Trump, who said Youngkin “knows how to make Virginia’s economy rip-roaring”.
He has a reported net worth of about $300m, and his campaign last week announced it had raised almost $16m from donors to date, just edging the almost $15m raked in by McAuliffe.
But Youngkin faces an uphill battle to win in Virginia, a state where Democrats have made significant gains in recent years, driven largely by support from former Republicans and independent voters in suburban areas. In November, Biden became the first Democrat to win in Virginia by more than 10 points since Franklin D Roosevelt in 1944.
Analysts said Youngkin would need to strike a delicate balance of winning back moderate Republicans while not alienating the conservative Trump-supporting base if he is to prevail in November.
However, history may be on his side, given that Virginia has in recent decades tended to elect a governor from the party not in the White House — with one exception being McAuliffe’s victory in 2013, a year after Barack Obama’s re-election as US president.
“[Virginia] is sometimes seen as one of the first tests of the new presidential administration,” said Kondik, adding: “It is a test, frankly, the administration often fails, because there is a long record of the state voting against the White House.”