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Virginia's contest for governor could again offer hints of the nation's political future

As an off-year gauge of national political trends, the Virginia governor's race is set to take center stage again this year.
Image: Virginia Gubernatorial Candidates 2017
Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, center, links arms with, from left, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov.-elect Justin Fairfax, Attorney General-elect Mark Herring and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., at an election night rally in Fairfax, Va., on Nov. 7, 2017.Win McNamee / Getty Images File

WASHINGTON — The Virginia governor's race has long held a unique place in the country's political cycle as a key gauge of how the political winds are blowing for both Republicans and Democrats one year after the last presidential election and one year before the next congressional midterms.

In 2005, Democrat Tim Kaine's win after President George W. Bush's re-election foreshadowed the Democrats' midterm victories a year later, as well as Barack Obama's triumph later in the state, which the party hadn't carried in a presidential contest since 1964.

In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell's victory previewed the tea party revolt against Democrats and the GOP's national success a year later.

In 2013, Democrat Terry McAuliffe's narrow win demonstrated the limits of the influence hard-line conservatives (like Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli) had in the state, but it also showed that Democratic performance was waning — which would come back to haunt the party in 2014 and 2016.

And in 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam's success foretold Democratic primary voters' preference for experienced, middle-of-the-road nominees (hello, Joe Biden) and the suburban backlash against Donald Trump's GOP.

It's that history that makes this year's governor's race in Virginia a must-watch contest over the next eight months, as at least five major Democratic candidates and four major Republicans are competing to replace Northam, who's prohibited from seeking consecutive terms.

The questions for Democrats include: Do their primary voters keep picking safe, middle-of-the-road nominees for the general election? Or do they go in a different direction, with the potential to elect the state's (and the country's) first female Black governor? And can Democrats continue their political dominance of the state?

For Republicans, the questions are: Can their candidates — a year into Biden's presidency — win back voters in the all-important suburbs? And can they navigate the political currents of a party that Trump still wants to control?

Do Democrats stick with their standard playbook?

The diverse field of Democratic candidates resembles the party's presidential primary field last year.

There's McAuliffe, who has the advantages of experience and money (he has more than four times the cash on hand as his nearest competitor, according to the latest campaign-finance filing).

There are state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, who are running to be the state's — and the country's — first Black female governor.

There's Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who's running to be Virginia's second Black governor but who has faced accusations of sexual assault.

And there's state Del. Lee Carter, a self-described socialist who co-chaired Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in Virginia a year ago.

As Biden did last year, McAuliffe starts off as the front-runner.

But also as in that primary contest, the other candidates will try to portray McAuliffe as representing the past — and they will argue that they represent the future and that they can turn out more voters in a general election.

"I know that this is not a moment to retreat to the past but to step boldly into our future," McClellan said when she announced her campaign.

And here was Carroll Foy in her announcement: "In order for there to be a trail, there has to be someone willing to blaze it. There has to be someone willing to set it on fire."

Beyond his money and his name identification, McAuliffe has an additional advantage: He might need as little as 35 percent of the primary vote on June 8 to win in the crowded field.

McAuliffe "is being opposed by three Black candidates, plus a socialist," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"If that doesn't change by June, it's a set-up for a McAuliffe plurality," he said.

How the GOP's contest differs from the Democrats'

Unlike Democrats, who are holding a primary in June, state Republicans had announced plans to choose their nominee at a convention May 8 at Liberty University, where delegates would drive up and enter their picks for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general under ranked-choice voting.

But on Friday, the state party concluded that holding the contest at a single off-campus site wasn’t “feasible,” and said it is now discussing ways to conduct a nominating convention employing multiple satellite locations across Virginia.

And unlike the Democratic nominee, the Republican winner will need a majority — not a plurality.

The major candidates include state Sen. Amanda Chase; state Del. Kirk Cox, a former House speaker; businessman Pete Snyder, a former candidate for lieutenant governor; and businessman Glenn Youngkin, the former co-CEO of the Carlyle Group.

The candidate who has produced the most headlines — and controversy — is Chase, who has described herself as "Trump in heels" and was recently censured by the state Senate for referring to the rioters in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack as "patriots."

The thinking among Republican observers is that the convention will probably hurt Chase the most: While it's easy to see how she could get a plurality in the first vote, it's more difficult for her to get a majority with ranked-choice voting. (In a crowded field, the candidate who's most likely to benefit in ranked-choice voting is the one who's the overwhelming second choice among convention-goers.)

And Chase has voiced her displeasure that state Republicans opted for a convention.

"I would like the VA GOP State Central Committee to answer a question. 1,962,430 voters voted for President Trump in Virginia. How are you going to accommodate these people who will want to cast a vote for our statewide candidates?" she tweeted last month after the state party formally approved its plan to hold a convention.

Can Republicans improve on their recent record?

Virginia has become only more Democratic since Bush won it in the 2004 presidential contest.

Of the 14 major statewide contests since then — for president, the Senate and governor — Democrats have won 13. The exception was McDonnell's victory in the 2009 governor's race.

But Democrats' recent dominance conflicts with another impressive record: Since the 1970s, the party that just won White House has always lost the governor's contest the following year — with just one exception: McAuliffe's narrow victory in 2013.

Observers say that if Biden stumbles, if Republicans wind up with a nominee who's not toxic in the suburbs and if Trump keeps his fingerprints off the race, the GOP has a fighting chance to win in November.

"If Larry Hogan can win in Maryland and if Charlie Baker can win in Massachusetts, a Republican can win in Virginia," said Tucker Martin, a longtime Republican strategist in Virginia, referring to the GOP governors in those Democratic-leaning states.