Gov. Ralph Northam is not yet one-third of the way through his term, which means it’s high time that we start talking about who the next governor might be.
Virginia politics, with its one-and-done rule for governors, is like that.
Let’s talk about the 2021 governor’s race over a cup of Starbucks coffee. That choice for our hot bean juice is important, as you’ll come to see.
First, though, let’s review the political landscape. This being Virginia, we need to spend a lot of time talking about our past before we get to our future. Virginia has had one of the narrowest paths to the governor’s mansion of any state in the union. For a long time, that route ran through the apple orchards of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. When the Byrd Machine dominated state politics, Byrd’s blessing was pretty much tantamount to election. Virginia’s modern political history did not begin until 1969 when Linwood Holton — a Republican lawyer from Roanoke — shattered the state’s one-party rule.
Since then, we’ve had 13 governors. Of those, nine had previously served as either lieutenant governor or attorney general. That surest way to get elected governor is to first get elected to one of those two offices. Of the four exceptions, one was George Allen, who was a former congressman and before that a state legislator, so was very much part of the state’s political ecosystem. That leaves just three others who came from a nontraditional background — Holton, Mark Warner and Terry McAuliffe. None of them had held elected office before being elected governor, although all three had been involved in politics in other ways. Virginia hasn’t had a true outsider as governor since Westmoreland Davis, a lawyer, farmer and magazine publisher from Loudoun County, won over a divided establishment field in 1917. Under normal circumstances, the Democratic nomination in 2021 would have been a showdown between the lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, and the attorney general, Mark Herring. We’ve seen that happen many times before when one party has held all the top offices.
Those normal circumstances ended in February, when Herring (like Northam) admitted to wearing blackface in his youth and Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault. Herring might survive; polls show voters see pretty forgiving of what might delicately be called a “youthful indiscretion.” Herring was, after all, 19 at the time and has a political record that might be more properly judged on. Fairfax appears in greater political jeopardy — perhaps legal jeopardy, as well. In any case, there are now lots of other Democrats who have let it be known they might want to seek the governorship as well, starting with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and perhaps including state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. There’s even talk that McAuliffe might try to imitate Mills Godwin and come back for a second term now that he’s not running for president. The point being: The state’s political paradigm has been disrupted. The Democratic nomination for 2021 may be more wide open than originally thought. To be continued...