Virginia Democrats, thrilled with Biden victory, aren’t looking for carbon copy

By Reid Epstein

Katherine White spent countless hours this year organizing voters to back Joe Biden for president.

One of millions of suburban women who became politically active for the first time after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, 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 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.

Biden’s victory was powered by suburban voters, especially women like 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 Trump on the ballot, 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 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 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% of its vote to Biden, a larger percentage than the party’s traditional battleground state strongholds in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, or Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit.

In nearby Arlington and Alexandria, more than 80% of voters picked Biden. Loudoun County, a battleground as recently as 2016, gave Biden 61% of its vote and 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.

Terry McAuliffe, the former governor, has been planning his political comeback for years and is expected to formally enter the race as soon as next week. Also likely to seek the nomination is Lee Carter, the lone democratic socialist in the House of Delegates, who said last week that he was “strongly considering” a bid and would make an announcement before the end of December. McAuliffe and Carter are both white.

Virginia law forbids governors from seeking consecutive terms. The outgoing governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, served as 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, 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 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 Biden’s heal-the-soul-of-America politics and set a marker for progressive politics in a Virginia that 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 Trump.

“I never had any doubt that there would be a problem getting Joe Biden elected in Virginia,” said Joanne Collins of Reston, Virginia, who is a leader of a local chapter of Indivisible, the progressive grassroots 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.”

Monique Alcala, a former president of the Democratic Party of Virginia’s Latino Caucus, was a supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren during the 2020 presidential primaries before taking a job as Biden’s coalitions director for Virginia. Now she said 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 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, 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, Virginia, after the 2016 election.

Zollo supported Biden in the 2020 primary because she saw him as having the best chance of beating Trump. Now she wants Virginia Democrats to put forward either McClellan or 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” 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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