Virginia Democrats, Thrilled With Biden Victory, Aren’t Looking for Carbon Copy

ANNANDALE, Va. — Katherine White spent countless hours this year organizing voters to back Joseph R. Biden Jr. for president.

One of millions of suburban women who became politically active for the first time after Donald J. Trump’s election in 2016, Ms. White is among the coterie of Biden voters processing his victory by thinking about what comes next.

She will not have to wait long — Virginia’s 2021 governor’s contest is already underway, with three major Democratic candidates declared and two more planning to enter the race as soon as next week. The big question Ms. White and other Democrats in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington are asking themselves now is whether the Biden political template — a steady, experienced white man — is what they want from Democrats in the post-Trump era.

Mr. Biden’s victory was powered by suburban voters, especially women like Ms. White, who were motivated during the primary and the general election by what they perceived as the existential threat of a second term for the president. Without Mr. Trump on the ballot, Ms. White and other liberal suburban women are looking to see the Democratic Party put forward more candidates that look like them — and they are not interested in waiting much longer.

“We’re beyond what the nation was looking for when they elected Biden, I think Virginia is beyond that,” said Ms. White, 56, whose organization, Network NoVA, serves as a collective for dozens of liberal groups in the Washington suburbs. “That’s where we have to lead; that we don’t need a white man to take us back to get us elected. We can do this in Virginia.”

Fairfax County, which includes Ms. White’s hometown, Annandale, has in one generation transformed from a place that George W. Bush carried in the 2000 presidential election to one of the nation’s most reliable Democratic strongholds. Fairfax gave 70 percent of its vote to Mr. Biden, a larger percentage than the party’s traditional battleground state strongholds in Milwaukee County, Wis., or Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit.

In nearby Arlington and Alexandria, more than 80 percent of voters picked Mr. Biden. Loudoun County, a battleground as recently as 2016, gave Mr. Biden 61 percent of its vote and Mr. Biden carried exurban Stafford County, the first time a Democratic presidential nominee won there since 1976.

Northern Virginia is expected to provide about half the vote in the June Democratic primary for Virginia governor, a race that for months has included two Black women — Jennifer McClellan, a 15-year state legislator; and Jennifer Carroll Foy, a member of the House of Delegates first elected in 2017 — and Justin Fairfax, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, who is also Black.

ImageFormer Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s supporters describe him as the steadiest hand to lead the state during what is expected to be a health and economic crisis.
Credit…Samuel Corum/EPA, via Shutterstock

Virginia law forbids governors from seeking consecutive terms. The outgoing governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, served as Mr. McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor and in February 2019 was ensnared in a cascading scandal when he apologized for, then later denied, posing in blackface in a photograph that appeared in his medical school yearbook. At the same time, Mr. Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault years earlier. He denied the allegations.

Interviews last week with more than a dozen Democratic activists in Northern Virginia found a group of voters thrilled with Mr. Biden’s success and yearning for him to follow through on campaign promises to stop the spread of the coronavirus, address income inequality and racial justice disparities and reverse Trump administration policies on the environment.

But it also found an electorate hungry to go beyond Mr. Biden’s heal-the-soul-of-America politics and set a marker for progressive politics in a Virginia that Mr. Biden carried by more than 10 percentage points. That result gave every Democrat interviewed confidence that whoever wins the primary will win the general election next November.

The two announced Republican candidates in the race are Kirk Cox, a former speaker of the House of Delegates, and Amanda Chase, a state senator in the mold of Mr. Trump.

“I never had any doubt that there would be a problem getting Joe Biden elected in Virginia,” said Joanne Collins of Reston, Va., who is a leader of a local chapter of Indivisible, the progressive grass-roots organization that began after the 2016 election. “That didn’t even cross my mind. And I think the governor’s race is going to be similar.”

Robbin Warner, who formed an organization that mailed more than 460,000 postcards to voters this fall, said her volunteers were energized about the prospect of Virginia electing its first female governor after an unbroken string of 73 men that began with Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.

“We like our Jennifers, and we’re very excited about having two wonderful women running,” she said. “They are capable, they’re articulate, they’re responsive, they understand Virginia. They are what we were so excited to work at, bringing more progressive ideas, more grass-roots ideas, focusing on women.”

The problem for both women running for governor is that, as happened in the presidential primary, they threaten to cancel each other out, leaving a wide lane for Mr. McAuliffe among voters who value his experience as governor at a time when the country is struggling to address the coronavirus and resuscitate an economy that by the time of the June primary will have been battered by the pandemic for more than a year.

Credit…Steve Helber/Associated Press
Credit…Steve Helber/Associated Press

“The disappearance of Trump is not going to change the fact that people’s kids aren’t in school and jobs have disappeared, and they’re going to be looking for people who can solve those problems,” said Dan Helmer, a Democratic state lawmaker who represents western Fairfax County and is unaligned in the governor’s race.

Though Mr. McAuliffe has not yet entered the race, aides to candidates already in the race have long assumed his entry into it and have wasted little time in addressing his potential political liabilities. Virginia’s turnout in 2013, when Mr. McAuliffe was elected governor, was just 43 percent, among the lowest turnout figures in the state’s modern history. The lone time Virginia Democrats nominated a Black candidate for governor, in 1989, 67 percent of the state’s registered voters turned out to elect L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected Black governor.

And Mr. McAuliffe, as did Mr. Biden, has a long political record that will appear different in 2021 than it did when he was governor. In 2015, Mr. McAuliffe ended the issuance of Virginia license plates bearing the Confederate flag but, like many of the state’s leading Democrats at the time, opposed taking down Confederate statues in Richmond, the state’s capital.

“It is a part of our heritage,” he said then. “It’s who we are in Virginia. And it’s an important part of our heritage. The flag is different.” In 2017, after white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, Va., Mr. McAuliffe changed his mind and called for the monuments to come down.

Mr. McAuliffe’s supporters describe him as the steadiest hand to lead the state during what is expected to be a health and economic crisis. And his aides point out that his political action committee was the largest single donor to the state Democratic Party during the 2019 elections, when Democrats flipped control of both the State Senate and the House of Delegates.

And Mr. McAuliffe’s aides are certain to claim support from Mr. Biden, who during a March campaign rally in Norfolk referred to Mr. McAuliffe as “the once and future governor of Virginia.” (A Biden aide declined to say if the praise constituted an endorsement.)

Credit…Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Monique Alcala, a former president of the Democratic Party of Virginia’s Latino Caucus, was a supporter of Senator Elizabeth Warren during the 2020 presidential primaries before taking a job as Mr. Biden’s coalitions director for Virginia. Now she said Mr. McAuliffe was the best choice because he knows how to manage Virginia’s government.

“As we’re dealing with unprecedented challengers with Covid, as we’re dealing with economic uncertainty, people are going to look at his experiences as governor,” said Ms. Alcala, who lives in Alexandria. “They are going to want somebody with experience leading during times of crisis, and I think Terry is the one to do that.”

Yet among the crowd of Northern Virginia Democratic activists who were women, Ms. Alcala’s valuing of experience is outweighed by the prospect of electing the commonwealth’s first female governor.

“It would send a real message to Virginia and maybe the country that Virginia is on a different path,” said Heidi Zollo, who started an Indivisible chapter in Herndon, Va., after the 2016 election.

Ms. Zollo supported Mr. Biden in the 2020 primary because she saw him as having the best chance of beating Mr. Trump. Now she wants Virginia Democrats to put forward either Ms. McClellan or Ms. Carroll Foy, she said, to “show that we take women and women of color seriously and we would be confident and comfortable in their leadership.”

And Lisa Sales, who is the chairwoman of the Fairfax County Commission for Women, said she “loves and adores” Mr. McAuliffe but that the time had come for Virginia to elect a woman as governor.

“The only way we get our issues addressed is by having more women in office,” she said. “This idea that a white man being the most electable, it’s a false premise. Electing a woman governor is long overdue. White guys need to get behind women, and men need to get behind women, especially women of color.”

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