McAuliffe’s win sets a general election between the former governor and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin. The race in Virginia, one of two states that hold off-year elections for governor after presidential elections, will be closely watched in Washington, DC, and beyond as it is often seen as a bellwether for the subsequent midterms.
Since the 1970s, the winner of Virginia’s gubernatorial election came from the party opposite the one that had won the White House — the one exception was when McAuliffe was elected in 2013 a year after Barack Obama had won his second term, a fact the former governor has often used on the campaign trail.
McAuliffe won this year’s primary by besting a quartet of other Democrats, including former Virginia Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and Del. Lee Carter, both of whom attacked McAuliffe from the left, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who have argued they were more prepared to succeed Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
The McAuliffe win is not a total surprise. The former governor entered the race as the clear front-runner, boasting strong fundraising numbers, a long list of endorsements and near-total name recognition. There were few indications headed into Election Day that the former governor had fallen from that perch.
There was some hope from McAuliffe’s challengers that Virginians would have become tired of longtime politicians like McAuliffe vying for their old jobs, especially in a state like Virginia where incumbents rarely run for governor again. More progressive candidates like Foy looked to attack McAuliffe for just that, casting him as a has-been politician who failed to deliver on his promises during his first four-year term.
“The former governor talks as if he wasn’t the former governor before,” Foy said in the final debate earlier this month. “He had his chance, and he failed the people of Virginia. So why does he deserve a second chance?”
But a series of factors, from an election-wary electorate to a field that failed to consolidate the anti-McAuliffe vote, had that argument falling on deaf ears. And McAuliffe, comfortable in his positioning for much of the campaign, largely avoided skirmishes with other Democrats, instead focusing on tying Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, a preview of the former governor’s general election message.
In an interview with CNN ahead of the primary, McAuliffe continued this focus on Youngkin, admitting that he was worried the personally wealthy former CEO of the private equity firm Carlyle Group “is going to flood the zone with money,” but adding that he more than welcomed Trump’s involvement in the race.
“I would pay for the fuel to get Donald Trump here,” McAuliffe said with a laugh, noting that Trump had endorsed Youngkin shortly after he won the nomination. “Absolutely, I will gas up the plane.”
That strategy reflects a confidence in a changed Virginia, a state that was once a Republican bastion. Since former President Barack Obama won Virginia in both 2008 and 2012, the state has moved to the left, a shift that was cemented when the party eventually won control of the Virginia General Assembly in 2019, giving Democrats full control of the state’s government for the first time in more than two decades.
Trump’s involvement in the gubernatorial race would undoubtedly engage the Republican base, but Democrats know that any images with Trump and Youngkin together would become staples in McAuliffe’s message. And they could be powerful: Trump lost the commonwealth in both 2016 and 2020.
The general election between McAuliffe and Youngkin will also be the first test for how Democrats invigorate their base without Trump either in office or on the ballot. McAuliffe told CNN Democratic engagement without Trump concerns him, arguing that while some Democrats may look at Virginia’s recent electoral results and believe a general election won’t be that close, they are wrong.
“We had Donald Trump here for four years. He drove Democratic turnout,” McAuliffe said. “Donald Trump is not president anymore. … It’s going to be very close. It’s going to be nip and tuck. This is going to be a battle. … You bet it’s going to be close.”
This story has been updated with additional details Tuesday.