Progressive hopefuls launched aggressive attacks at frontrunner Terry McAuliffe during the last week of Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial primary, invoking race to portray the multimillionaire former governor as out of touch with minority voters.
Former state lawmaker Jennifer Carroll Foy landed the most piercing blows against McAuliffe during the primary's final debate Tuesday night. She first argued that the "out-of-touch millionaire" McAuliffe "had his chance" as governor and "failed the people of Virginia." Minutes later, she seemingly accused McAuliffe of viewing black people as "convicted felons" after the former governor touted his work to restore voting privileges to former prisoners.
"Terry McAuliffe, not all black people are convicted felons. We are more than restoration of rights," Carroll Foy said. "That's why we need a governor who will treat us in a holistic way to root out the inequities in our health care, in our economy, in our environment, in all of the systems."
Carroll Foy's combative rhetoric embodies liberals' last-ditch efforts to defeat McAuliffe, who holds a strong lead in the polls. Carroll Foy, state senator Jennifer McClellan, and lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax—the primary's three black candidates—have long portrayed the campaign as one of "progressive change" versus "status quo." The trio elevated their racial jabs, however, during Tuesday's debate. Fairfax said African Americans were being "shut out" of the primary, while McClellan stressed the need to elevate "the perspectives of black Americans, black women."
The primary's abundance of liberal, minority candidates makes it difficult to "mobilize that faction of the Democratic Party" and defeat McAuliffe, George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government dean Mark Rozell said. But the final blitz against the former governor is boosting Republican hopes that McAuliffe will fail to energize liberal voters come November.
"Terry McAuliffe is clearly struggling to earn the confidence of his party or demonstrate that he has a firm grasp of the facts," GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin said in a post-debate statement. "I agree with Jennifer Carroll Foy—Terry likes to talk like he wasn't already governor, but he's a politician of the past who had his chance and failed."
Some liberal activists echoed the anti-McAuliffe rhetoric after the debate. Virginia Justice Democrats co-chair Matt Royer called on McAuliffe to "get behind the only candidate who has seen what poor people have to go through in court" given that the former governor wants to "talk about transforming the justice system and how you saved these folks from it." The group endorsed Carroll Foy in January, calling on Virginia voters to not "move backward" and "continue to give power to those with deep ties to the corporations that look to buy influence in the Governor’s Mansion."
Carroll Foy is also backed by national progressive group Democracy for America. Organization CEO Yvette Simpson in May accused McAuliffe of having "a bit of a savior complex … the white savior complex."
McAuliffe largely ignored the barbs Tuesday, instead focusing on Youngkin, who he called an "extreme right-wing Republican" and "loyalist to Donald Trump" in his opening statement. That strategy also drew criticism—this time from socialist state lawmaker Lee Carter, who said the Democratic Party "can't just be a party that is opposed to the other guys" and has to "fight for something."
For Rozell, McAuliffe's "aura of inevitability" in the primary could prove an advantage as the former governor attempts to "create Youngkin's image before the Republicans do." But the political scientist added that Carter "has a point," noting that with former president Donald Trump out of office, "voters are going to be looking a little more broadly this time and not just reacting to the Trump wing of the Republican Party."
The five Democrats will square off on Tuesday.