McAuliffe, Chase Lead in First Wason Center Poll

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, announces that he is running for the Democratic nomination for governor during a press conference in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. Mcauliffe was joined by several backers, including Mayor of Richmond Levar Stoney, right. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

By Brian Carlton

February 20, 2021

The data shows most Virginia voters remain undecided.

NEWPORT NEWS – Most Virginians don’t know who they want to be governor. The latest poll from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center also highlights what people think of the current person to hold that seat, among other things. 

But first, we look at the 10 people competing to take Gov. Ralph Northam’s place this November. Northam can’t run again, as Virginia law states a governor can’t serve consecutive terms. Right now, however, no favorites have emerged in the field. The poll shows 49% of Democratic voters and 55% of Republicans remain undecided.

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe is the current frontrunner, with 26% of the vote. Current Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax comes in second with 12%. Third place is a tie currently, with State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and former Prince William Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy both at 4%. Current Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas) rounds out the Democratic field, pulling 1% in the poll.  

“New Democratic faces and priorities have emerged since Terry McAuliffe was governor,” said Wason Center Academic Director Dr. Quentin Kidd. “He opens with a head start, but he’s a long way from closing the deal.” 

Kidd points out that we are still four months away from the Democratic primary in June. What the data tells him is that voters still don’t really know who these candidates are. At the same time, he highlights that in terms of race and gender, this is the most diverse race to be the Democratic nominee the Commonwealth has seen. 

Questions Remain in Republican Race

On the Republican side, only one candidate got higher than 10% of the poll. That was current State Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who leads with 17%. Former Virginia Speaker of the House Kirk Cox is second with 10%, followed by current Disruptor Capital executive Pete Snyder with 6%. Former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin finished fourth with 3% of the poll. The final candidate, former CEO for the Center for European Policy Analysis Peter Doran, declared too late to be considered for this poll. 

Unlike the Democrats, which have already set both a June primary and a series of debates, Republicans are still deciding how they’ll choose a candidate. The Republican State Central Committee initially voted in December to hold a convention, but they have to be more specific. An organized convention would violate the state’s current COVID-19 restrictions which ban indoor events with more than 25 people. Option two is an unassembled convention, but that has to be approved by the group first. In an unassembled version, regional polling places are set up across the state. Yet, just like in the regular version, only certified delegates can vote. These delegates are selected by each local party and then have to pay convention dues, typically $35, in order to vote. 

Chase sued the Republican Party earlier this month, claiming they acted illegally by using a convention to choose statewide candidates. On Friday, a Richmond Circuit Court judge tossed out that lawsuit. 

Given the fact that more than 55% of those polled are undecided, Wason Center officials feel it’ll be hard to predict who gets the nomination. 

“The underlying friction between Chase’s fervent Trumpism and Cox’s Reagan Republican credentials could crack the party and open the door for Snyder or another contender,” said Wason Center Research Director Dr. Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo.

Most Statewide Candidates Lack Recognition

The other statewide races highlight a specific problem. Most candidates don’t have statewide name recognition this early in the contest. Only one, current Democratic attorney general Mark Herring, pulled in double digit support. Forty-two percent of those polled chose Herring, while 3% picked his opponent, current Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk). On the Republican side, Norfolk lawyer Chuck Smith is the frontrunner with 10%, followed by Chesterfield Supervisor Leslie Haley at 5%. Virginia Beach Del. Jason Miyares is third with 3%. 

Wason Center officials pointed out that 78% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans are still undecided in the lieutenant governor’s race, for example. None of the eight Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor finished above 2% in the poll. They include current Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria), current Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William), former Fairfax County NAACP president Sean Perryman, current Del. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William), lobbyist and NFL agent Xavier Warren, current Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke), Norfolk City Council member Andria McClellan and former Democratic Party of Virginia chairman Paul Goldman. 

The Republican field is a bit smaller for lieutenant governor, with current Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) leading at 8%. Former Fairfax Del. Tim Hugo is second at 4%, with the other three bringing in no more than 2% each. They include Northern Virginia business consultant Puneet Ahluwalia, Air Force veteran Lance Allen and former Del. Winsome Sears. 

By The Numbers

Beyond the election, poll takers were asked if the state is headed in the right direction. Neither side got a majority, with 47% saying yes and 41% saying no. The rest were undecided. Gov. Northam got a more positive response, with 54% in support. 

The poll’s results came from interviews with 1,005 registered Virginia voters that took place from Jan. 31 to Feb. 14.

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