Hillary Clinton supporters are crowing that helping to install Democrat Terry McAuliffe as the next governor of Virginia puts her one battleground state closer to the White House in 2016.
While drawing broad conclusions from off-year political race can be dangerous, there are signs that McAuliffe's victory offers Clinton reasons for optimism if she runs for president.
Just five years ago, Clinton got walloped in the Virginia Democratic primary by Barack Obama wielding 64 percent of the vote. Tuesday's victory by McAuliffe, her family friend and fundraiser, is widely viewed as the first step toward burying the missteps of her 2008 campaign and laying the groundwork for another White House bid.
"I believe as a Democrat that these gubernatorial races will matter in 2016," said John Morgan, a top Clinton bundler who said he raised and gave a total of $500,000 to McAuliffe. "The governors of these battleground states will have a platform to help the nominee."
That's true, though McAuliffe's support could be loaded. If Clinton seeks to run as a change agent who would break barriers as the first woman president, palling around with the former Democratic National Committee chairman – notorious for renting out the Lincoln Bedroom and Air Force One – would be a reminder of politics-as-usual. McAuliffe is so closely associated with the Clintons that the successes or failures of his administration will inevitably shadow any presidential campaign in Old Dominion.
"He reinforces her negatives, the things people already don't like about the Clintons and their history of I-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine, crony-style politics," said Tim Miller, a spokesman for the America Rising super PAC, which has been attacking McAuliffe and Clinton for months. "She's stuck with Terry for better or worse if she's on the campaign trail in Virginia."
Democrats and Republicans have been peddling the notion of the McAuliffe campaign as a test run for a Clinton campaign, mostly as a fundraising club, for months. The Clintons reinforced that perception by headlining big-time fundraisers and barnstorming the state with McAuliffe in the homestretch. "If we don't act immediately, in a just a few weeks' time, Hillary will have won her first major victory of the 2016 race for the White House, and there won't be a thing we can do about it," warned an e-mail blast from the Stop Hillary PAC. "Clinton is using this race to strengthen her grip over this key 2016 battleground state by installing her most loyal henchman as governor."
That's a hard case to make in the traditional sense of a governor acting as a good will ambassador and political machine for a presidential nominee. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's endorsement of Obama in 2007 may have helped, but judging by the margin of victory, he probably would have won the state anyway.
Probably the best-known example of a governor helping to swing a close election was former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, then a popular Republican incumbent, throwing his support to John McCain just days before the Florida Republican primary in 2008. Crist's nod helped McCain claim the state and ultimately, the nomination.
But there are many more examples of governors having little if any sway over a presidential contest. Consider Obama's sweep of the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, and of course, Virginia – all of which were held by Republican governors in 2012. As a larger-than-life figure in American politics, Clinton will advance to the White House on the strength of her own candidacy, not on any endorsements.
Still, there are other ways to view McAuliffe's victory as a good sign for a prospective Clinton comeback in Virginia.
After years in which President Obama's crackerjack campaign team has reigned supreme, McAuliffe's history-breaking victory – the first after nine election cycles in which Virginia elected a nominee from the party inside the White House – mints his staff as the hottest Democratic properties around. And at the top of that list is a 33-year-old wunderkind named Robby Mook who served as McAuliffe's campaign manager and was a top Clinton staffer in 2008. McAuliffe's pollster, Geoff Garin, was a top Clinton adviser. If these and other McAuliffe staffers join a Clinton campaign, they would come with the experience of having picked Virginia's political lock, no easy feat for a Democrat in an off-year election.
"There will be a primary among the 2016 hopefuls to try to get the talent from the McAuliffe campaign," predicted former Clinton White House adviser Paul Begala, who has thrown his support behind Hillary in 2016. "If you can campaign with Barack Obama and have a fundraiser at (former RNC finance chairman) Dwight Schar's house, that's a pretty damn good campaign."
Added Morgan: "Everyone is still in place and by the time people start looking at 2016, Terry's tanks and army in Virginia will be well healed."
McAuliffe's win also helps to cement Virginia's status as a former Republican stronghold that has evolved into a rapidly growing and diversifying battleground. In this new, Democratic-friendly frontier of American politics, the influence of white and older voters is on the wane while, unmarried women, minorities and young people are growing in clout.
Democrats Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and, of course, President Obama, helped build this winning coalition and now McAuliffe has taken it one step further by targeting those constituencies once again.
"Democrats have been toiling in this vineyard for a long time," Begala said. "Virginia has finally become an archetype of the rising American electorate. Once you establish that, it's very difficult to turn back."