Progressive Dreams Are on Pause in Virginia

Progressive Dreams Are on Pause in Virginia

Progressive Dreams Are on Pause in Virginia

Terry McAuliffe wins the gubernatorial primary while moderates beat candidates to their left around the state.


Virginia heralded the anti-Trump electoral resistance in 2017 when it elected 15 Democrats to the House of Delegates, including 11 women, one of them transgender and four of color, plus a democratic socialist, along with a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. Two years later, they took the General Assembly, giving the state that hosted the capital of the Confederacy complete Democratic control. Progressives hoped Virginia would become a bellwether for political change, and in some ways it was, as the state expanded Medicaid, repealed restrictive abortion laws, expanded voting access, and promoted antidiscrimination laws.

Tuesday night’s election results set back the progressive dream, some. Former governor Terry McAuliffe swept aside his opponents, winning more than 60 percent of the vote; progressive favorite Jennifer Carroll Foy, endorsed by Emily’s List, Higher Heights and more unions than any other candidate, eked out 20 percent. McAuliffe won every city and county in Virginia. In some ways, it felt like a rerun of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, where a historically diverse field—including four female Democratic senators, two Black senators, a Latino former congressman, an Asian American, a gay mayor, and at least two solid progressives—made it hard for voters to coalesce on the grounds of representation or ideology, and elder white statesman Joe Biden ultimately cruised to victory.

Similarly, in a race with three Black candidates—Carroll Foy, state Senator Jennifer McClellan, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax—and two progressives, Carroll Foy and democratic socialist Delegate Lee Carter, a single strong challenger to McAuliffe could never emerge. Like Biden, McAuliffe was able to count on the support of most Black establishment leaders—he had roughly as many Black elected officials in his corner as the three Black candidates combined. He launched his campaign last year flanked by Black allies, including state Senator Louise Lucas and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. McAuliffe is credited with helping to inspire the Democratic resurgence in the state, and gets wide credit for restoring the voting rights of Virginia felons in 2017. Also: Black Virginians want a winner in November, and the well-funded former governor (and Democratic National Committee chair) may be the only one who can compete with self-funding businessman Glenn Youngkin in raising money

Elsewhere around the state, there were other disappointments. Moderate Delegate Hala Ayala beat progressive Delegate Sam Rasoul for nomination as lieutenant governor. Ayala once seemed fairly progressive herself, but in this race she reversed course and took money fromVirginia energy monopoly Dominion. Another Muslim progressive, Delegate Ibrahim Samirah, lost his seat to well-funded moderate Irene Shin. Democratic socialist Lee Carter lost twice, in the governor’s race and in a primary for his delegate seat, losing to moderate Michelle Lopez-Maldonado. (It’s worth noting that the two male progressives lost to women of color.) But with Carroll Foy replaced in the House of Delegates by Black moderate Candi King, it’s hard not to notice that the progressive wing of that body has been clipped some.

For his part, Carter said he was “relieved” to lose, with an odd tweet saying, “This job has made me miserable for the last 4 years” and complaining of “assassination threats and harassment.” Some progressives on Twitter took it as a sign of the self-absorption that led him to run for governor, where he won only 3 percent of the vote.

The best news of the night for progressives? Twenty-six-year old Nadarius Clark, a Black community organizer endorsed by Democratic Socialists of America, Clean Virginia, and other progressive groups, beat a fairly conservative Democratic incumbent, Steve Heretick, known for his staunch defense of Dominion and his opposition to a law mandating the removal of Confederate monuments. Clark fought back tears at his victory party, telling reporters, “It’s just so remarkable we had the opportunity to show Virginia that a young 26-year-old can make a difference in their community. They can be the change they want to see.” Daily Kos communications director Carolyn Fiddler says Heretick’s loss is a boost for progressives: “Democrats won’t have to worry about Heretick’s recurring contrariness if their House majority shrinks.” Meanwhile, progressive Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, who dropped a run for governor, beat back centrist challengers to hold her seat.  

There was also some good news on the GOP side, where wing nut attorney Wren Williams, who “counseled” Donald Trump during the Wisconsin recount last year, crushed seven-term incumbent Charles Poindexter, partly on the grounds of Poindexter’s insufficient loyalty to the disgraced former president. It’s just another sign that Trump has a tight grip on the state party. Former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin might want to try to distance himself from the former president, to win back suburbanites who’ve strayed to Democrats in the Trump years, but Trump already endorsed him and is unlikely to loosen his hug any time soon.

In his victory speech, McAuliffe quickly turned to bashing his opponent. “Youngkin is not a reasonable Republican,” he told the crowd, warning the race could be close. “There are 75 million reasons that Glenn Youngkin could win,” he added, referring to the Republican’s wealth, and urged his supporters to “give money every single day.” 

For his part, Youngkin welcomed McAuliffe to the race with an ad starring Carroll Foy saying the former Democratic governor “is not inspiring” and doesn’t represent “change.”

But Carroll Foy quickly endorsed McAuliffe. “Let’s do everything we have to do. Let’s get in the trenches. Let’s do the work because at the end of the day, we must win in November,” she told a crowd as she conceded. Another new Youngkin ad features him in a sea of older white male politicians in suits, his red vest supposedly marking him as an outsider.

It’s hard to imagine overwhelmingly white Virginia GOP voters will be fired up by a progressive Black Democrat’s complaints about McAuliffe, or by complaints that white men have run Virginia for too long—especially coming from a wealthy older white man. This race will get uglier.

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