It’s unusual when you can get a clear, concise answer from a politician.
The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress got one last week when it asked Rep. Abigail Spanberger about whether the 7th District congresswoman plans to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2025.
First, she gave the answer that all aspiring candidates give: Right now she’s focused on helping Democrats win November’s General Assembly races, etc., etc., so forth and so on. That’s the standard answer they must teach in campaign school.
But then, when asked if she’d have a different answer after November, Spanberger was surprisingly direct: “Yes,” she said.
That seems one clear tipoff that Spanberger plans to run for governor. So is this: Over the weekend, she was in Blacksburg to help campaign for Lily Franklin, the Democratic nominee for House District 41, which covers parts of Montgomery and Roanoke counties. (Chris Obenshain is the Republican candidate.) She’s not the first prominent Democrat from the other side of the state to show up for Franklin. Earlier this year, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney made an appearance. Former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn will be in the Roanoke and New River valleys this weekend. This is not casual tourism. These are the first moves of the campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2025. All these visitors have been mentioned by the metaphorical Great Mentioner as possible candidates. A fourth possible candidate, Loudoun County Del. David Reid, has also been through the region and will be again. (I’d strongly suggest that all these candidates not think they’ve checked off the Southwest box by going to Blacksburg; there’s a lot of Virginia west of that. It may not vote Democratic but it’s still very much there.)
It’s far too early to handicap that race so instead I’ll do something else: I’ll look at how unusual this field of possible Democratic candidates is.
The Republican field is much more conventional: It starts with Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares, both of whom already hold statewide offices that are always seen as stepping stones to higher offices until we’re told otherwise.
From my analyst’s eye, the Democratic field is more interesting. As the party out of power, they don’t have the benefit of an obvious candidate-in-waiting.
Let’s look at what both parties have done in years past when they found themselves in this situation. The modern era in Virginia politics began in 1969, when Linwood Holton became the first Republican to win the governorship in nearly a century.
Since then we’ve had 13 state elections. In six of them, the party that won the governorship won just one of the other two offices — lieutenant governor or attorney general — which meant that for the next cycle the party out of power (in terms of the governorship) still had a statewide office-holder to whom they could turn as an obvious candidate for next time. In one, the party that won the governorship didn’t win either of the other two state offices, which meant that the next cycle the party out of power had to recruit from elsewhere. And then there were six elections where one party scored a statewide sweep, which meant the next cycle began with the other party having no obvious candidate for governor. That’s the situation Democrats are now in, after having been blanked in 2021, so let’s look at the type of candidates who have been fielded in similar circumstances:
1985: Republicans turned to a former state legislator, Wyatt Durrette, who had been the party’s unsuccessful candidate for attorney general four years before. They lost again.
1989: Republicans had a three-way primary that included former attorney general and unsuccessful 1981 gubernatorial nominee Marshall Coleman, former U.S. Senator Paul Trible and Rep. Stan Parris. Coleman won the primary but lost the general election.
2001: Democrats turned to wealthy businessman Mark Warner, who had been the party’s unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate five years earlier. He won.
2009: This was the one odd exception noted earlier. In 2005, Democrat Tim Kaine had won the governorship, but Republicans had won the other two offices, which meant Democrats didn’t have a statewide office-holder to turn to. They had three candidates: two state legislators (Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran) and a newcomer who had never been elected to office (former national party chair Terry McAuliffe). Deeds won the primary but lost the general election.
2013: Democrats turned to that newcomer who had never held elected office — McAuliffe. This time they won, and scored a sweep.
2017: Republicans had three candidates: a state legislator (Frank Wagner), a county supervisor (Corey Stewart) and a former national party chairman of their own (Ed Gillespie). Gillespie won the primary but lost the general election.
2021: Republicans had seven candidates: two state legislators (Amanda Chase and Kirk Cox), a former sheriff (Octavia Johnson) and then four who had never held elected office before. One of those was Glenn Youngkin, who won the nomination, and then the fall election, leading Republicans to the sweep that now leaves Democrats without an obvious nominee.
So, what can we draw from all this?
First, these party sweeps are becoming more common — four of the past four elections have been sweeps. That probably reflects our growing political polarization, which has reduced ticket-splitting.
In terms of the types of candidates who come forward in such open situations, we see a mix of state legislators, members of Congress and people who have never run for office (generally from the business world) with some local office-holders mixed in.
I’m not sure we can draw too many conclusions from that except to say that parties out of power are drawing from increasingly wider talent pools. Whether some of those candidates are talented may be a matter of dispute, but the point is that the route to the governorship no longer runs exclusively through prior service in Richmond. I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing. One of our most important governors — Holton — had never been elected to anything. It’s said that when he was invited to call on the outgoing governor the day following the election, he needed to ask directions to find the governor’s office.
Of the four Democrats lining up to seek the governorship, two would make history in obvious ways: We’ve never had a woman elected as governor. Filler-Corn or Spanberger could be the first. So could Earle-Sears on the Republican side. No U.S. state has never elected a Black woman as governor — Earle-Sears could be the first. Virginia has never had a governor of the Jewish faith. Filler-Corn could be the first. Virginia has never had a Hispanic governor, either. Miyares could be the first. Unless Reid becomes the Democratic nominee, we could have our first governor’s race in which neither major party candidate is a white man.
There are other ways to look at this field, too. Here are some ways:
Filler-Corn and Reid: We haven’t had anyone jump straight from the legislature to the governorship since John Battle did it in 1949. He had been in the state Senate. We haven’t had someone go from the House to the governorship since Philip McKinney in 1889 — and his House service had ended 24 years before that. No one has gone straight from the House to the governorship since John Floyd of Blacksburg did it in 1849.
Spanberger: Being a member of Congress once was a common route to the governorship of Virginia, although that route hasn’t been used for a long time. George Allen had been a U.S. Representative before he was elected governor in 1993 — there was a year’s gap in between. When he was running for governor that fall, he was a former congressman. So was Thomas Stanley when he ran for governor in 1953; he had resigned from Congress to run. So did Colgate Darden, who was elected governor in 1941. (Spanberger won’t like to hear those examples of members of Congress resigning before they ran for governor.) The last sitting member of Congress to be elected governor of Virginia was Claude Swanson, who was the congressman from the 5th Congressional District when he was elected governor in 1905.
Stoney: He faces the most unconventional route. No one has gone straight from a mayorship to the governorship since Williamsburg Mayor John Garland Pollard did it in 1929. Pollard, though, had been attorney general before that and had been an unsuccessful candidate for his party’s nomination for governor 14 years prior. Being mayor of Williamsburg feels more like a side hustle than a career move; at the time Pollard was dean of the law school at the College of William & Mary.
None of this addresses what our next governor should do. That’s what a campaign still two years off will be about — but here’s some context on the field of candidates that’s already taken shape.