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Terry McAuliffe's popularity in Virginia dims some Democrats' hopes for first Black female governor

Jennifer Carroll Foy and Jennifer McClellan — “The Jennifers” — have struggled to gain traction in a Democratic primary dominated by the former governor.
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Virginia Democrats are less than a month away from picking a nominee in this year’s race for governor, and two things are increasingly clear.

Terry McAuliffe, the former governor barred by a quirky state law from seeking a second consecutive term four years ago, looks unbeatable, with commanding leads in the polls and in fundraising. And that means the prospect that Virginia could elect the country’s first Black female governor — and the first female governor in the state's history — are fading fast.

Former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy or state Sen. Jennifer McClellan would make history in that regard if either advances from the June 8 primary and wins the November election. Both have struggled to gain traction, though, against the enduringly popular McAuliffe.

The final weeks of the campaign have brought an early wave of second-guessing and finger-pointing among their boosters. Some have privately suggested that one of “The Jennifers,” as many Democrats colloquially refer to them, should have dropped out to ease a path for the other, while others have questioned why McAuliffe, a white man, entered the race in first place when two qualified Black women were already running.

“Terry McAuliffe has a bit of a savior complex,” said Yvette Simpson, the CEO of Democracy for America, a progressive political organization that has endorsed Carroll Foy. “He's got the white savior complex: ‘I'm the only one that can beat the Republicans.’”

Image: Jennifer Carroll Foy
Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy gestures during a debate at Virginia Sate University in Petersburg, Va., on April 6, 2021.Steve Helber / AP file

Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy, made history in 1989 when Douglas Wilder was sworn in as the nation’s first Black elected governor. Since then, only one Black candidate, current Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, has won statewide office.

Fairfax also is a Democratic candidate for governor this year, but Democrats closely watching the race discount his chances because of sexual assault allegations, which he has strenuously denied, in addition to his low standing in the polls. The seven-person Republican field, which will yield a nominee after votes from this weekend's logistically complicated GOP convention are counted, also includes a Black woman, Octavia Johnson, the former Roanoke sheriff.

But Virginia has trended strongly Democratic in recent years, with Republicans struggling to win statewide. The state also tends to favor moderate, establishment candidates like McAuliffe. The blue political shift is driven by the booming suburbs, where residents regularly strike down ballot measures to raise taxes for social programs, and by older Black voters, who tend to be more cautious about backing candidates in primaries they think white voters won't support in November.

At a debate Thursday night, McAuliffe, 64, pitched himself as the safe, electable choice and warned that whoever emerges as the Republican nominee will be beholden to former President Donald Trump and his policies.

“I asked him to run,” said Virginia Senate President Pro Tempore L. Louise Lucas, a leader of the state’s Black political establishment and a co-chair of McAuliffe’s campaign. She described McAuliffe as a “comfort level” choice in the midst of a pandemic.

“I know what kind of job Terry can do,” Lucas said.

The McAuliffe playbook, allies and detractors agree, is similar to the one that propelled President Joe Biden to the top of the most diverse primary field in history last year. Like Biden, McAuliffe polls well with voters of color: Two surveys last month, by Christopher Newport University and Public Policy Polling, found the former governor with large pluralities of support among Black Democrats.

As such, McAuliffe has earned more support from prominent Black leaders in the state. His campaign leadership and endorsement list is filled with influential figures like Lucas and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who has worked closely with McAuliffe for a decade. He carries a sense of inevitability that can make donors and power brokers wary of crossing him, but he also tends to relationships and adroitly nurtures alliances.

State Del. Don Scott, who has a felony in his past, said McAuliffe encouraged him to run for the Legislature two years ago at a time when others were counseling him against a campaign. He hasn’t forgotten that favor.

“He had my back,” said Scott, a staunch McAuliffe supporter. “He may have thought he was running [for governor in 2021], but nobody else came down here. He put in that work and built those relationships. And if he did that with me ... imagine the type of relationships he's been able to build — and relationships matter.”

Image: Jennifer McClellan
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, gives a thumbs-up to a passing motorist who blew the horn as she was holding a press conference to discuss her gubernatorial campaign near the Maggie L. Walker statue in Richmond, Va., on April 8, 2021.Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP file

Before his successful bid for governor in 2013, McAuliffe was best known as Bill Clinton’s party-loving party man, helming the Democratic National Committee, collecting millions for candidates across the country and chairing Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. His fundraising talents have translated to his own campaigns. The $8.5 million that McAuliffe reported having on hand at the end of the first quarter far outpaced Carroll Foy’s $2.3 million and McClellan’s $442,000.

Maurice Mitchell, who runs the progressive Working Families Party, which is backing Carroll Foy, said women and candidates of color still face “serious institutional barriers,” even in the Democratic Party of 2021.

“We think that a movement that has principles that are about democracy, that are about racial equality, gender justice, should reflect that in creating pathways — real, legitimate pathways — for people of all experiences,” he said.

With far fewer resources and favors to call in, Carroll Foy, 39, and McClellan, 48, have found it difficult to press their case against McAuliffe, let alone make a case for themselves. Early voting began two weeks ago. The pandemic has made it tougher to connect with voters. Their relative lack of cash has made it tougher to compete in the state’s expensive TV-ad markets, including Washington, D.C. Last month’s polls placed their support in the single digits, with each trailing McAuliffe by margins that exceeded the percentage of undecided voters.

In the second Democratic debate Thursday, Carroll Foy said McAuliffe as governor had been too slow to respond to racial justice and policing issues, while McClellan discussed her parents’ upbringing during the Jim Crow era and suggested she would be more responsive to the needs of diverse communities.

McAuliffe, in a statement to NBC News, said he is “so proud of the unmatched, broad and diverse coalition of support we are continuing to build across the Commonwealth. Virginians share a vision of creating a stronger, more equitable post-COVID economy that invests in workers, addresses inequities in health care and education, and gives everyone a path to a better, brighter future.”

Carroll Foy, a former public defender, has leaned into her financial advantage over McClellan, spending about as much on TV advertising over the last 10 days as McClellan reported in her campaign account at the end of March. In addition to her endorsements from progressive organizations such as Democracy for America and the Working Families Party, she also has the backing of prominent women’s group Emily’s List. She offers herself as the true progressive, a pitch complicated by the candidacy of state Del. Lee Carter, a democratic socialist.

McClellan has more experience in the state Legislature and her own roster of substantial endorsements from local officeholders. She presents herself as a compromise candidate — the establishment credentials of McAuliffe, but with the opportunity to make history.

Groups dedicated to electing women and candidates of color are reluctant to choose between the two. Last week, the Higher Heights for America PAC, which supports Black women for public office, hosted an online forum with both candidates. Her Excellency VA, a group committed to electing women in Virginia, also is forgoing an endorsement, though its leader, Susan Platt, said McClellan is her personal preference. Collective PAC, which promotes Black candidates, had planned to endorse in the Virginia race, but leaders decided against it after polling showed neither Carroll Foy nor McClellan in a strong position.

“Unless there's a groundbreaking change in the race, I think we all kind of know the result,” Collective PAC President Quentin James said. “There is a pathway for one candidate to take on Terry McAuliffe. It's just that, right now, in the eyes of the voters, there isn't a clear distinction.”

Privately, allies of both candidates have suggested Carroll Foy or McClellan should drop out to consolidate the non-McAuliffe vote. But others chafe at the idea of putting that burden on a Black woman, believing McAuliffe should have yielded for lack of a compelling reason to run again now.

“What’s he really doing in the race in the first place?” said Steve Phillips, a prominent black Democratic donor and activist who promotes candidates of color, dismissing McAuliffe’s run as “a function of ego and boredom.”

Phillips, who supports McClellan, said Democratic powers-that-be are always “late to the table” in supporting candidates of color based on an “outdated understanding of the electorate,” even though he argues Black candidates can often perform better in the general election by exciting voters and driving up turnout.

“I’m old enough, as in I was around three years ago, to remember the lack of enthusiasm for Stacey Abrams in her primary election,” he said of the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia in 2018 who narrowly lost that race. “And I’m old enough, as in nine months ago, to remember people were slow to get behind Raphael Warnock on the similar logic that a black person is not going to do well and what we need is a nice safe white person.”

Warnock was one of two Democrats elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia in January's runoffs.

James, the Collective PAC president, fears a missed opportunity.

“We have to ask these questions: ‘Can I win outright, or can I be super supportive of someone else and help them win?’ And that is a tough call to make for anybody,” James said. “But it's definitely one that, if we want to maximize the Black voting bloc and maximize the opportunity to make historic change, that's a question that we can't gloss over.”

“That's what every single group, whether they've endorsed or not, has told me behind the scenes,” he continued. “It's like, man, we really wish only one Jennifer had run in this race.”