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Can Lee Carter Bring Socialism to Virginia’s Executive Mansion?

Lee Carter pushes desk down as lawmakers clap in House chamber
Del. Lee Carter slams on his desk in Virginia's House of Delegates to mark the first day of the 2020 legislative session. Carter is the fifth Democrat to announce a bid to become governor. (Craig Carper/VPM News)

On Monday, Del. Lee Carter’s nascent gubernatorial bid got a boost from an unexpected supporter: Marianne Williamson, Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual advisor and a former Democratic presidential candidate, urged her Twitter followers to “help him win!”

It was the latest development in what is already an unconventional campaign from Carter, a former Marine and self-described socialist who is the fifth Democrat to enter the governor’s race. Carter said he was running in part because other Democrats were too beholden to the “corporate establishment,” whose donations he said he’ll refuse.

“We're gonna have to rebuild our economy in a way that is owned and operated by Virginia workers,” Carter said in an interview.

Since Carter announced his candidacy on Friday, he has boasted of his opposition to an economic development deal that landed Amazon’s second headquarters in Virginia, criticized Democrats for not forcing a Congressional vote on Medicare for All, and retweeted several historical photos of trains (“I’ve been a rail fan for years,” Carter said).

Carter rose to prominence -- and Twitter fame -- after he flipped a Republican seat in Prince William County in 2017. Since then, he’s focused on policies he says will help empower workers, like repealing Virginia’s right-to-work law. He argues Virginia needs worker-friendly policies that he wasn’t seeing from the existing field.

“We’re not just gonna keep funneling tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to outside investors and out-of-state corporations to come here and pretty-please give us some jobs,” Carter said.

Carter faces steep competition. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe raised $6.1 million in 2020, his campaign announced on Monday, a record for a gubernatorial candidate the year before an election. Jeniffer Carroll Foy, a former delegate who quit her post to focus on the governor’s race, has run on a progressive platform, lining up endorsements from two unions and attacking McAuliffe as emblematic of political interests. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan has deeper ties to McAuliffe but cast herself as a pragmatic lawmaker who can bridge the party’s various factions. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who has forcefully denied accusations of sexual assault levied by two women in 2019, is also in the running.

Carter served as co-chair for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ Virginia campaign last year and often echoes Sanders in tone and policies. But Sanders won less than a quarter of the vote in Virginia’s Democratic primary. Carter said Sanders lost in part because “a lot of people felt they couldn’t that they couldn’t take a chance if they wanted to beat Trump.”

With Trump off the ballot, Carter said Democrats faced a new question: “What does the Democratic Party stand for?” 

Carter may succeed in drumming up donations and headlines in an unorthodox campaign, according to William and Mary political science professor John McGlennon. But McGlennon said Carter would need to broaden Sanders’ coalition to garner more support from Black voters and suburban women -- both key demographics in Virginia’s statewide primaries.

“We have high levels of education, we have a lot of dynamism in the economy, in terms of tech, medical professions, and so forth,” McGlennon said. “It's just not the place where you see the kind of alienation among the Democratic electorate Sanders was able to tap into against [Hillary] Clinton.”

Carter said he’ll work to mobilize communities that haven’t traditionally voted in Democratic primaries. McGlennon said some of those voters may be more likely to turn to a different kind of populist: State Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian), who has anchored her GOP gubernatorial campaign on the Second Amendment and headline-generating conspiracy theories.