by Brandon Jarvis

The Democrats have eight candidates seeking the nomination to run for lieutenant governor this year — meaning the eventual nominee could end up receiving only 25% of the primary vote, which would be a historically low percentage of the vote for the winner. But even with the potential for such a small coalition of support for the Democratic nominee, experts and members of the party feel confident that the troops will rally behind the Democratic ticket either way. 

The last time a Democratic lieutenant governor candidate received less than 49% of the primary vote to become the nominee was in 2005 when Leslie Byrne earned the nomination with 33% of the primary vote. Byrne eventually lost to Bill Bolling by one point in the general election, underperforming the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and winner at the top of the ticket, Tim Kaine. Four years prior to that, Kaine won the lieutenant governor primary with 39.5% of the vote in a three-way race and then went on to win the general election by two points, underperforming Mark Warner at the top of the ticket by two points.  

Virginia’s political landscape is much different now, however, with Democrats making huge gains in recent years. Democrats have not faced a close statewide election since 2013, in which they still won. They are no longer the underdogs, or even on an even playing field. Until voters prove otherwise, these statewide seats are the Democrat’s races to lose.  

A clear front-runner is not present in the lieutenant governor’s race — though Delegate Sam Rasoul, a southwest Democrat from Roanoke has a substantial amount of money according to sources — potentially providing an edge for him over the rest of the field. 

The next filing deadline for candidates to report fundraising totals is Wednesday.

Money is of the utmost importance in a race where none of the candidates have statewide name recognition. “Unlike the Democratic contest for governor, the lieutenant governor competition has no clear favorite,” said Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at Mary Washington University. “The challenge for all of the candidates running is the need to become better known across Virginia.” 

This is a common problem in this race — especially for the state delegates, which represents four of the eight candidates. But even though they are serving in the General Assembly, a delegate represents roughly only one percent of Virginia. 

Plus, in the age of COVID-19 restrictions, it is not possible to attend campaign events and gauge support on the ground for each candidate. It also makes individual voter outreach for the campaigns more difficult — there are no significant field operations or meet-and-greets and fundraisers at large houses. Instead, those things exist in virtual-form, in the format of a Facebook live announcement; or a Zoom call with different Democratic committees across Virginia. “Traditional metrics may not apply,” Farnsworth said. “Running for office during COVID-times is much more complicated than before.” 

But, with more on the line at the top of the ticket, voters are likely to be much more engaged in that decision. Farnsworth believes that it is safe to think the voters will follow suit down ballot. “The bad news for lieutenant governor candidates is they’re not well known, the good news is that they are probably going to go in or out with the tide,” said Farnsworth, implying that the down-ballot races will follow the lead of the gubernatorial race. “If Democrats win the governor’s race, it is not likely they will lose the lieutenant governor’s race. I don’t think anyone could possibly handicap the lieutenant governor’s race.”

One Democratic operative involved with a lieutenant governor candidate described competing with so many primary opponents as “playing on a snowy football field,” saying the conditions are bad but everyone has to play through it. Several candidates announcing their candidacy early with no clear front runner likely contributed to the field reaching such a high number. “Part of the reason the field is so big is it is really anybody’s race,” Farnsworth said. 

The candidates span the spectrum of ideology but in recent Democratic primary elections, ideology has lost to electability. “I think [Virginia] Democrats have lost so many elections over the last 30 years that they are still not used to winning the way they have in the last ten,” Farnsworth said Tuesday when discussing how Democrats often choose the most electable candidate in the nomination processes, while Republicans often vote by ideology. “There is a great willingness on the Democratic side to look for a more electable candidate rather than an ideological soulmate. Republicans tend to take the opposite conclusion, focusing on an ideological soulmate, rather than a candidate with the best chance of winning.”

An operative from the Democratic Party that is not associated with any of the lieutenant governor campaigns does not think that a low-percentage primary winner will have any negative impact on the general election. They also noted that the nominee, no matter who that might be, would receive the same help and resources once they become the official candidate with a ‘D’ next to their name on the ballot. 

The Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA) says the huge slate of candidates is a reflection of how strong their party has grown. For context, since 2017, Democrats have flipped both the House of Delegates and state Senate along with three congressional seats. “Having a record number of candidates step up to run for lieutenant governor is a sign of how strong our party has become,” said Grant Fox, communications director for DPVA. “Hundreds of thousands of Virginians are going to vote in the Democratic primary, while on the other side GOP insiders are rigging a chaotic convention process as the candidates try to out-Trump each other. Whoever wins our primary will be more than ready to beat the right-wing extremists Republicans nominate.”

The full Democratic field includes Del. Hala Ayala, Paul Goldman, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, Del. Mark Levine, Andria McClellan, Sean Perryman, Del. Sam Rasoul and Xavier Warren.

Any Virginia registered voter can participate in the primary election that takes place on June 8.

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