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Virginia Democratic voters face a key choice in upcoming primary for governor

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Terry McAuliffe
Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe speaks during a campaign event for Joe Biden at Booker T. Washington High School, on March 1, 2020 in Norfolk, Va.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Stay the course? Or go in a new history-making direction?

That’s the question for Virginia Democratic voters ahead of the party’s gubernatorial primary on June 8 featuring former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, current Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and state Del. Lee Carter.

It’s a race that also somewhat echoes the 2020 Democratic presidential contest — with McAuliffe running as the experienced hand, with McClellan and Carroll Foy having the chance of being the state’s (and nation’s) first Black female governor, with Fairfax having the chance of being Virginia’s second Black governor, and with Carter running as a self-described socialist.

Usually, the stay-the-course pick would seem to be the less-appealing option for voters, except that Virginia Democrats have had tremendous success in the state (going 13-1 since 2005 in presidential, Senate and gubernatorial contests). And progressives have enjoyed policy wins with middle-of-the-road executives (either Gov. Ralph Northam or Joe Biden) flanked by Democratic-controlled legislatures.

Carroll Foy and McClellan are running as different change agents — with Carroll Foy backed by the more activist wing of the party (Democracy for America, the Sunrise movement and, as of this morning, Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif.), and with McClellan running as the more experienced legislator of the two.

Fairfax, although he registers in polls, is seen as less viable after facing accusations of sexual assault.

McAuliffe is the frontrunner and starts off with name ID, financial and mathematical advantages: In a five-candidate race, the winner might need as little as 35 percent of the vote, especially if anti-McAuliffe Democrats aren’t able to consolidate around one alternative.

But the former governor would be much more vulnerable if the contest turns into a two-person race.

And then there’s the general election: Despite Virginia becoming more Democratic over the last 16 years (see below), the party that has controlled the White House has gone on to lose this race every time since the 1970s — with one exception.

When McAuliffe narrowly won in 2013.

Virginia’s political tectonic shift

That said, Virginia has undergone a political tectonic shift over the last two decades.

Consider: Virginia consistently voted for Republican presidential candidates from 1968 through 2004, with George W. Bush handily capturing the state by about 8 points in both of his presidential runs. But Barack Obama flipped the script for Democrats with a 6-point win in 2008, setting up subsequent blue victories in 2012 (4 points), 2016 (5 points) and then 2020 (10 points).

Also during that time, Democrats banked decisive wins in the 2017 gubernatorial race (winning by 9 points), the 2018 midterms (flipping three U.S. House seats), and 2019 state legislative races (taking control of both chambers.)

Much of that growth stemmed from dramatic Democratic movement in the state’s populous and affluent northern suburbs. In Loudoun County, Va., where Bush won by 12 points in 2004, Biden sailed to a 25-point victory in 2020. And in Fairfax County, where John Kerry received a slim majority of 53 percent in 2004, Biden won nearly 70 percent of the vote.

Reversing that suburban trend will be the GOP’s biggest challenge in November’s general election.

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Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

30,060,644: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 62,026 more than yesterday morning.)

546,440: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far, per the most recent data from NBC News. (That’s 934 more than yesterday morning.)

128,217,029: Number of vaccine doses administered in the U.S.

13 percent: The share of Americans who are fully vaccinated.

36: The number of days left for Biden to reach his 100-day vaccination goal.

Talking policy with Benjy: How this border debate is different from past ones

NBC’s Benjy Sarlin makes an important distinction between the current situation at the border — with crowds of unaccompanied children seeking asylum — and past immigration debates.

For years, the dominant concern at the border was Mexican nationals crossing illegally in order to find work, along with smugglers. And Congress responded: The size of the border patrol quintupled from Clinton to Obama, hundreds of miles of fencing were approved, and deportations were sped up.

These moves fueled a deadly humanitarian crisis, but they also largely accomplished their goals. When Congress took up immigration reform in 2013, border apprehensions were way down and more Mexican citizens were leaving the U.S. than entering, a trend that’s continued in the years since.

Instead, first Obama, then Trump and now Biden face a new challenge: Tens of thousands of largely Central American children and parents presenting themselves at the border and requesting protection from gang violence, natural disasters, and persecution. Unlike economic migrants, this is their legal right under U.S. and international law.

“These are mostly people who go to ports of entry and ask to apply for asylum,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. “Before it was mostly people who came across our border without inspection and disappeared into America.”

Asylum seekers were not a major issue in the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill, which would have doubled the border patrol yet again, added more fencing, and instituted more work checks to catch illegal hiring. While not irrelevant, those security features are less applicable to the current situation. Same with partisan divides over which undocumented immigrants to prioritize for deportation inside the country.

While everyone agrees overcrowded border facilities are an immediate danger, neither party is unified on what to do beyond that. Biden wants to make the asylum process more orderly in migrants’ home countries, while Trump sought to force more migrants to stay in Mexico while awaiting processing (often in disturbing conditions) and to make it harder to qualify for asylum. Whatever they decide, old debates about which party will be more “tough” on the border can’t easily answer what to do with an 11-year old fleeing gang recruiters.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

The Justice Department is investigating a prosecutor who appeared in a “60 Minutes” interview about the Capitol riot, with some saying his speaking out was inappropriate.

Many of the people who stormed the Capitol had something else in common — they’d recently opened their wallets to donate to Trump.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s party appears to be leading after the latest parliamentary elections in Israel, but it’s not clear if he has enough support to form a majority coalition.

Officials say North Korea fired at least one missile over the weekend — the first such activity since Biden became president.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth now says she’s received assurances from the Biden administration and will step back from her pledge not to confirm any more of his nominees because of a lack of AAPI representation.

Mitch McConnell is defending comments that the filibuster’s origins have “no racial history at all.”

The Biden administration is weighing an extension of an eviction moratorium.

Vivek Murthy has been confirmed (again) as Surgeon General.

There’s a growing subplot in the California recall effort that involves ...Tom Steyer.