Virginia Dems to decide: Return McAuliffe or chart new path?

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Virginia State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, left, shows her daughter Samantha, right, her ballot at an early voting location in Richmond, Va., Saturday, May 29, 2021. McClellan faces four other Democrats in the primary. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. – Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s signature exuberance was on full display as he campaigned on Memorial Day weekend in downtown Petersburg, cracking jokes in a beauty salon, leading a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and breaking into a dance on a sidewalk.

“I want everybody to know we are back here in Virginia, and we’re going to be stronger than we’ve ever been. We are going to lead the nation out of this COVID crisis,” he told a crowd of supporters and spectators that began chanting his name.

In his quest for a second term, McAuliffe heads into Tuesday’s five-way Democratic primary with an undeniable lead in public polling, name recognition, endorsements and money. But the question facing voters in the primary election is whether the political veteran with decades of experience is the right man for the moment in a state and nation deeply divided and in the throes of unsettling change.

In Virginia, Democrats assumed full control of state government in 2020, two years after McAuliffe left office, and pushed through sweeping change, from gun control to police reform to marijuana legalization to an increase in the minimum wage, transforming what was once a reliably red state into an outlier in the South.

McAuliffe is an old-school politician who cut his teeth working on President Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign and later led the Democratic National Committee. If he wins the nomination he’ll face a tough GOP challenger from Northern Virginia who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump and vast personal wealth to boost his campaign.

That’s not a matchup in tune with the times or that bodes well for Democrats, say McAuliffe’s two leading primary opponents — a well-respected veteran state senator and an energetic former state delegate both looking for a shot to become the nation’s first Black woman governor.

Virginians deserve better than two “millionaire out-of-touch politicians” at the top of the ticket, Jennifer Carroll Foy, who stepped down last year from her state House seat to focus on her run for governor, said in an interview.

On the campaign trail earlier this week in Hampton Roads, she doubled down on that line of attack.