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‘No One Is the Gatekeeper Anymore’: Virginia Voters Face Field of 32 Candidates

Headshots of candidates for governor
Republican and Democratic candidates for governor. Top row, from left: Kirk Cox (R), Peter Doran (R), Pete Snyder (R), Justin Fairfax (D). Middle row: Octavia Johnson (R), Jennifer Carroll Foy (D), Lee Carter (D), Sergio de la Pena (D). Bottom row: Jennifer McClellan (D), Amanda Chase (R), Terry McAuliffe (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R). Photos taken from candidate's websites and social media pages.

Virginia voters are spoiled with choice this spring. A total of 32 statewide candidates have cleared both parties’ certification process in a field larger than any in modern history.

“There's absolutely no precedent for this,” said Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and author of a book about nomination fights in Virginia. “There's not a single year that even comes close.” 

Seventeen Republicans candidates -- seven for governor, six for lieutenant governor, and four for attorney general -- paid fees ranging from $2,900 to $14,000 by Friday evening to qualify for a party-run convention set for May 8, according to the Republican Party of Virginia.

Fifteen Democrats -- five for governor, eight for lieutenant governor, and two for attorney general -- gained the necessary 2,000 signatures from registered voters to qualify for a June 8 primary, according to the Democratic Party of Virginia. Tuesday was the deadline for the party to certify its list of statewide candidates and send them to the Virginia Department of Elections ahead of the primary.

A third-party candidate for governor, activist Princess Blanding, is also in the mix

Democratic incumbents in the House of Delegates, which is also up for election this year, have more primary challengers than at any point since at least 1999, according to the Virginia Public Access Project

The broad field was unheard of for much of last century, according to Sabato. Harry Byrd handpicked segregationist Democrats to run for office until the mid-1960s. Even after Byrd died, Sabato said that candidates were often told by senior party leaders to wait their turn. 

“It was called the politics of anointment and appointment,” he said

The GOP swore off primaries after a 1949 vote that Sabato called a “disaster” because of low turnout; the party didn’t hold another primary until 1989, and many of its candidates gained nominations unopposed.

“No one is a gatekeeper anymore,” Sabato said. “Today, disruption is part of the game.”

This year’s field includes a historic amount of racial, gender and ideological diversity. Three Democrats and one Republican in the race for governor identify as Black. Three of those candidates -- Democrats Jennifer Carroll Foy and Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) as well as Republican Octavia Johnson -- are trying to make history by becoming the first Black woman to become governor in the U.S. The gubernatorial field includes a self-described socialist in Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas) and a “Trump in heels” in Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian)

The wide swath of candidates is one factor in Republicans’ decision to embrace ranked choice voting for the first time in a statewide nominating convention. That process requires voters to rank the contenders. If a candidate clears 50% of the vote, they win. If no one does, the lowest-performing candidate is eliminated. The process repeats until one candidate clears the 50% threshold.

Reformers argue the process dilutes the power of more radical candidates who may win a plurality of votes but struggle to gain a majority. They argue it encourages candidates to compete to become someone’s second choice and reduces the “spoiler effect” of casting a vote for a candidate who is unlikely to win, syphoning votes away from a more electable second choice.

A state law that goes into effect July 1 will allow localities to run ranked-choice local elections. Arlington’s County Board is set to consider the idea in the coming months, with other localities likely to follow.

Advocates like Elizabeth Melson, president of FairVote Virginia, would like to see legislation expanding the option to school boards and primaries. That change could have especially large consequences in large fields like the eight-person Democratic race for lieutenant governor, where a candidate could win the nomination with less than 20% of the vote.

“We're removing that spoiler effect, we're talking more about issues reaching out to a broader voting base than just an extreme base,” Melson said.