Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is one step closer to winning his old post after defeating four other Democrats in a primary on Tuesday.
The Associated Press called the race for him shortly after polls closed in Virginia.
McAuliffe's decisive win over a diverse field sets up a closely watched general election contest with Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
McAuliffe's primary competition included state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, both of whom were aiming to become the first Black woman elected governor in the United States. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and state Del. Lee Carter were also in the race.
Virginia's off-year elections are often seen as a bellwether for the national mood. In nine of the state's last 10 gubernatorial races, the party in the White House has lost the contest in Virginia.
McAuliffe bucked that trend when he narrowly won his first term in 2013.
The former entrepreneur and chair of the Democratic National Committee spent much of his term battling a Republican-led legislature on hot-button issues like abortion and gun rights. He also made economic development a priority, aggressively courting Amazon in a successful push to bring their second headquarters to Northern Virginia (the current governor, Ralph Northam, ultimately inked the deal).
McAuliffe mulled a run for the White House after his term ended in 2018 but ruled it out after now-President Biden, whom he's called a friend, entered the primary.
If he wins in November, McAuliffe will be just the second two-term governor in Virginia since the end of the Civil War. Virginia's constitution forbids consecutive runs and McAuliffe has been endorsed by Northam, who is expected to retire from political life after his term ends.
McAuliffe and Youngkin, a former CEO of the Carlyle Group, have some things in common: Both men are wealthy, well-connected residents of the Washington, D.C., suburbs. McAuliffe is a prolific fundraiser who counts U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Bill Clinton as allies, while Youngkin has already plowed more than $12 million of his own money into his campaign.
With McAuliffe easily leading in Democratic primary polls and fundraising, the pair began mud-slinging right after Youngkin won a GOP nominating convention in May.
Youngkin has cast McAuliffe as a "career politician" who had failed to solve the problems of Virginians. And immediately after McAuliffe's win, the Youngkin campaign launched two ads attacking McAuliffe, including one featuring clips from Carroll Foy, a primary opponent endorsed by some progressive groups, saying McAuliffe "failed the people of Virginia." (Carroll Foy said on Monday she would support the eventual Democratic nominee even if she lost.)
McAuliffe has repeatedly criticized Youngkin's embrace of Trump and argued he would bring radical views on issues like abortion and LGBTQ protections that would imperil people's wellbeing and the state economy.
"We cannot bring the bio, the life sciences, the renewable energy jobs to a state that discriminates," McAuliffe said at a campaign stop in Richmond on Monday.
Republicans haven't won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009, when Bob McDonnell was elected governor.
Tucker Martin, McDonnell's former communications director, said the GOP faces an "absolutely formidable" opponent in McAuliffe, who could leverage his experience and connections in his campaign.
Still, Martin, who also advised Ed Gillespie in his unsuccessful 2017 run against Northam, predicted Trump would not play as large a role this year as he did in that race, "when he essentially blocked out the sun." That could create a more favorable environment for Republicans, Martin said, given Trump's unpopularity in a state he lost by 10% in 2020. Democrats, on the other hand, have to create a sense of urgency without Trump looming across the Potomac.
"When you win this much, it's hard to keep that energy and intensity up," Martin said.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Trump's shadow still loomed over the race given the continued news coverage he generates.
"Yes, Youngkin projects a good image," Sabato said. "But it's easily dented, maybe even destroyed, because he has a big 'R' next to his name and he is very definitely tied to Donald Trump."