Some takeaways from the Democratic primary that produced a ticket of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe for governor, Del. Hala Ayala for lieutenant governor and Mark Herring for a third term as attorney general:
1. Virginia Democrats are content with the party establishment. We saw this last year in the Democratic presidential primary. All the excitement was with the party’s “progressive” candidates but when people actually voted it was the least liberal of the candidates, Joe Biden, who won. Much the same here. McAuliffe doesn’t animate left-leading party activists — more on that to come — but they appear louder than they are numerous. McAuliffe didn’t just win, he won easily, crushing his four opponents. One question going into the primary was whether McAuliffe would be able to top 50%. In the end, he topped 62%. The breadth of McAuliffe’s win is impressive: He carried every locality in the state.
Herring, meanwhile, took just under 57% against Jay Jones. In some ways Jones was an establishment figure as well, a rising star in the legislature who is also the son of a former legislator. The six-way lieutenant governor’s race had been considered wide open, but wasn’t. Ayala committed a horrendous mistake at the end — accepting $100,000 from Dominion Energy after initially pledging not to take money from state-regulated utilities. But she was endorsed by Gov. Ralph Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and was clearly the establishment favorite, especially against the insurgent candidacy of Roanoke’s Sam Rasoul. She won easily, taking 37.5% to Rasoul’s 24.2%. The next closest contender was Mark Levine with 11.2%.
2. Do Democrats really have an enthusiasm problem? That’s the prevailing storyline from many commentators and there is some truth to that. In 2017, there were 542,858 votes cast in two-way Democratic primary for governor. This year there were more candidates — five — but fewer voters. As of Wednesday, the tally was 484,151 although a few more might trickle in before Friday’s deadline for accepting mailed-in ballots.
Some of this fall-off from four years ago is understandable: Democrats were animated (that’s a mild word) by the presidency of Donald Trump, so turnout surged in 2017, both in the primary and then the general election. With Trump gone (or at least out of office), Democrats aren’t nearly as motivated. What we saw this year was a return to normal turnout levels. By that measure, this year’s vote tally was higher than the 2009 gubernatorial primary, where 319,168 people voted. (We should point out Democrats went on to lose that year). Turnout this year was 8%, so roughly midway between 2017’s record 9.9% and 2009’s 6.4%. So it’s probably wrong to say Democrats aren’t enthusiastic; they’re just not at 2017 levels. The challenge for Democrats is that Republicans this year seem unusually excited, as parties out of power often are.
Maybe the suburbs have realigned so much away from Republicans that not even an energized Republican Party, fielding a wealthy blank-slate nominee not identified with Trumpism, can win. We’ll see. Democrats on Tuesday went with the safe choices. Maybe that will be sufficient, perhaps even desirable in the eyes of risk-averse suburbanties. But Democrats may have to work harder this fall than they counted on. After four years of their voters being on red alert (more like blue alert), perhaps a certain amount of voter fatigue has set in among Democrats. They may think that this election is a given the long string of Democratic victories in Virginia; Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2009. If Glenn Youngkin and any of his ticketmates — Winsome Sears for lieutenant governor and Jason Miyares for attorney general — win in November, we can look back at the turnout in the Democratic primary as the first sign of trouble for the Democrats. But Tuesday’s turnout may also mean nothing at all.
3. Democrats have become the party of Northern Virginia. For the first time, all three nominees are from there. Meanwhile, the top echelon of the party’s General Assembly leadership is also all from Northern Virginia — the Speaker of the House, the House Majority Leader, the Senate Majority Leader, the chairs of the House and Senate money committees. This is an unprecedented concentration of power in a single part of the state. Granted, it’s the most populous part of the state, but Democrats are opening themselves up to criticism that they don’t really understand the whole state. (Once again, we must point out how House Democrats from Northern Virginia killed both a constitutional amendment to fix school disparities and a measure to pay for school construction in less affluent parts of the states.) In a social media age, maybe geography doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Still, Republicans can legitimately claim that they, and not the Democrats, have nominated a ticket that looks more like modern-day Virginia. Democrats nominated two white men and a woman of color; Republicans nominated one white man, a Black woman and a Latino. Democrats nominated three Northern Virginians, Republicans nominated a candidate for governor who grew up in Richmond and Virginia Beach and now lies in Northern Virginia, a candidate for lieutenant governor who once represented Norfolk and now lives in Winchester, and a candidate for attorney general from Virginia Beach.
4. Geography mattered in the lieutenant governor’s race. Unfortunately for Rasoul, that benefited Ayala more than him. The state was split right down the middle. Rasoul won every locality from Shenandoah County south and from Charlottesville and Halifax County west with the exception of Pittsylvania County and Danville, which went to Xavier Warren, who grew up there. Ayala, though, took everything to the east — and that’s where the votes are.
We don’t want to hear anything from anyone claiming Southwest Virginia voters are, well, whatever pejorative you want to apply to them. They voted for a Muslim progressive, and often enthusiastically so. In many western localities, he topped 50%, sometimes by wide margins. In Botetourt County, Rasoul took just under 79% of the vote. In Floyd County, he took 69%. In Craig County, 68%. In Giles County, 62%. In Alleghany and Franklin counties, he took 60%. In Washington County, he took 58%. In Scott County, 57%. (Not surprisingly, his high-water mark was his hometown of Roanoke, where he took 86%). Geography sure seemed to matter there. Democrats who have just nominated an all-Northern Virginia ticket might want to reflect on that.