RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Voters on Tuesday were deciding the Democratic nominee in this year’s closely watched race for Virginia governor, whittling down a five-person field in which former Gov. Terry McAuliffe is widely viewed as having a commanding lead.

McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic Party fundraiser who previously held office from 2014 to 2018, is seeking a rare return to the governor’s mansion in the only state that prohibits its chief executive from serving consecutive terms.

The race in Virginia has taken on heightened importance as Democrats aim to hold onto power after assuming full control of state government in 2020. Since then they have pushed through sweeping changes, from gun control and police reform to marijuana legalization and a higher minimum wage, transforming what was once a reliably red state into an outlier in the South.

Among McAuliffe's opponents are state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, both running in what could be history-making bids to become the nation’s first Black woman governor. They would also be Virginia’s first female governor of any race.

The other two candidates are Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Lee Carter, a self-identified socialist.

Only Virginia and New Jersey have regularly scheduled governor’s races this year, with Virginia’s considered the more competitive of the two. The unusual off-year elections typically draw outsized attention as a possible bellwether for national trends heading into next year’s midterms.

Patrick Smith, 53, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force and also has been a truck driver, said he voted for Carter because the House delegate supports universal health care and expanding voting rights and doesn’t take money from corporations.

“When I listen to him speak, he pretty much sounds like me speaking,” said Smith, who lives in Norfolk.

Smith said he voted for McAuliffe the last time he ran for governor and liked him. But Smith said: “Lee is less, I don’t want to say establishment, (but) he’s just a little closer to my values overall for what I want to see a politician saying we need to do for people at large — not just a handful of people.”

The winner of Tuesday’s race will face the GOP nominee, Glenn Youngkin, a political newcomer who won that party’s bitter, competitive nomination contest in a May convention. Republicans appear energized by the idea of Youngkin — a wealthy former executive at an investment fund with no voting record to be scrutinized — atop a racially diverse ticket as they seek to break a more than decadelong GOP losing streak in statewide races.

The GOP is hopeful one party control in Washington will help their chances, especially given a long-running trend of Virginia voters picking governors from the opposite party of the sitting president.

Voters also will choose the Democratic Party’s nominees for attorney general and lieutenant governor.

Carolyn Ramey, 63, of Virginia Beach, said she voted for Fairfax for governor because “it’s time to put some new ideas in and get some new people in office.”

Ramey said the allegations against Fairfax, who was accused in 2019 of sexual assault by two women, had little impact on her.

“He was lieutenant governor, so I figured he has the experience,” said Ramey, who is a retired mental health counselor. “I am looking at the man and what he’s capable of doing in office. And I want to give him a chance.”

Anne-Marie Angelo, 42, of Virginia Beach, said she voted for Carroll Foy because of her progressive stances on gun control, health care and policing.

“Black women are kind of the backbone of a lot of the important progressive changes that have been happening in this country for centuries,” said Angelo, who is white and a history professor. “It’s time that we have a Black woman governor. And I believe she was the most prepared for that job.”

Bobbi Andrews, 85, said she voted for McAuliffe based on his past record as governor and, in part, because of his stance on education.

“I’m hoping that we can get these community colleges at least two years free,” said Andrews, who retired from working in sales and lives in Norfolk.

Andrews said she’s voted for Republicans before. And she said that Youngkin is a strong candidate.

“I’m glad to see a strong Republican running because we need two parties,” Andrews said. “If we don’t have two parties, neither one of them will be honest.”

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