McAuliffe will face Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin in the general election in November. Republicans have not won a statewide race in Virginia in more than a decade.
Virginia’s term limits don’t allow for governors to serve consecutive terms. McAuliffe previously served from 2014 to 2018.
“Folks, we launched this campaign about six months ago on the simple idea that Virginia has some very big challenges ahead,” McAuliffe said in a speech Tuesday night. “And I’ve said, we’ve got to go big, we’ve got to be bold, and we need seasoned leadership to move us forward and to lift up all Virginians.”
Virginia is the only state in the nation with an open race for governor this year, and the contest is expected to be closely watched as a barometer of voter sentiment in each party heading into the midterm elections.
The race has also 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.
“We are a different state than we were eight years ago, and we are not going back,” McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe is a longtime Democratic Party fundraiser and a close friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton. He announced his run in December last year.
McAuliffe won the endorsement of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who came under fire during his term over apparent support for infanticide and old photographs of himself in blackface.
On the campaign trail, McAuliffe vowed to address Virginia’s lagging teacher pay, protect access to abortions, accelerate Virginia’s minimum wage increase to $15 by 2024, and ban “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines.
McAuliffe led the primary field throughout the race in both fundraising and the polls. He defeated state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and Del. Lee Carter.
Youngkin released a statement on Twitter responding to McAuliffe’s primary victory.
“Voters from across the political spectrum agree that we need a new kind of leader to bring a new day to Virginia. Get ready, because Terry McAuliffe will default to the same political games he’s played his entire life,” Youngkin said.
“I’m confident that voters will not choose a recycled, 40-year political insider and career politician who pretends to be a businessman, who talks big but doesn’t deliver, and who failed Virginians the first time he was governor.”
McAuliffe lobbed attacks at Youngkin during his victory speech, including for the Republicans’ support of former President Donald Trump.
“We cannot let Glenn Youngkin do to Virginia what Donald Trump has done to our country,” McAuliffe said, according to The Hill.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.