McAuliffe’s Understated Effect on the Virginia Governor Race

The outgoing governor’s positive ratings could help tilt the scales toward Democrat Ralph Northam.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe at a rally for Ralph Northam in Richmond on Thursday
AP Photo/Steve Helber
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Oct. 22, 2017, 8 p.m.

RICHMOND, Va.—Terry McAuliffe, for once, was not the star of the show.

As rally-goers waved posters for Ralph Northam and the rest of the Democratic statewide ticket, they exploded in applause anytime the outgoing governor mentioned President Obama. The crowd continued to crescendo as he talked about his and Northam’s work to raise teacher pay, protect the LGBT community and the environment, and restore voting rights to felons.

But McAuliffe opened with his favorite points of pride after nearly four years in the governor’s mansion—data that has flown under the radar in the first competitive statewide election with President Trump in the White House: 3.7 percent unemployment, 215,000 net new jobs, $18.5 billion in capital investment.

“Folks, that’s what you get when you elect Democrats to office,” McAuliffe said. “We create jobs!”

McAuliffe, who is prohibited by law from seeking a second term, leaves office with enviable approval ratings. Polls consistently show voters admire the former Democratic National Committee chair and dislike Trump. Meanwhile, majorities of Virginians believe the nation is on the wrong track but express confidence that their state is heading in the right direction.

While McAuliffe’s own role in the race is understated and drowned out by news out of Washington and Charlottesville, the Democrat has taken steps to help Northam succeed him, both on the policy and political front.

“One of the fundamental problems for Republicans in this race is that voters don’t like what they’re seeing in Washington and they do like what they’ve been seeing in Richmond,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist with roots in the state. “If Northam wins, this won’t be just a rejection of Trump but also an affirmation of Terry.”

McAuliffe, whose term coincided with a Republican-controlled General Assembly, couldn’t implement more-progressive policies that may have otherwise alienated independent voters. But he frequently boasts about being a “brick wall,” vetoing bills that would have limited abortion rights, something Northam similarly championed in the state Senate.

McAuliffe and Northam both ascended to their first stateside offices in 2014 and have since collaborated on economic-development issues and restoration of voting rights to ex-convicts. Northam continues to call for Medicaid expansion, McAuliffe’s one major unfulfilled priority.

“These ac­com­plish­ments are not Terry McAul­iffe’s ac­com­plish­ments. They’re our ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­com­plish­ments,” McAuliffe told National Journal in July. “That’s what Ral­ph’s go­ing to run on, a con­tinu­ation of those policies.”

Republicans see vulnerabilities in those ties. Mailers from the Republican Party of Virginia have called out “the Northam-McAuliffe team” for “restoring rights to illegal immigrants who committed crimes” and to a “criminal sex offender.”

“Northam will build on Terry McAuliffe’s progressive record that hurt our economy, cost us jobs, and put our families at risk from gang violence and left wing politics,” another Gillespie-approved mail piece reads.

Gillespie himself hasn’t attacked McAuliffe as often. But in the hopes of promising a better economy, Gillespie decries the net migration of people out of the Old Dominion and highlights the state’s slow growth in comparison to other states.

“Gillespie is not trying to run against McAuliffe’s record other than the stagnant economy,” Virginia Republican Party Chair John Whitbeck said. “There’s just so many other issues out there unrelated to the governor.”

Gillespie and McAuliffe have their own personal history: The two Catholic University graduates overlapped as chairs of their respective national parties in 2004. In his 2006 book, Winning Right, Gillespie described “The Macker” as “a much nicer guy in person than he comes across on television.”

“We’d beat the hell out of each other when we were on the clock, but got along fine after we punched out,” Gillespie wrote.

McAuliffe has taken more concrete steps to help Northam. His political action committee, Common Good VA, this year gave over $100,000 to Northam and another $150,000 to the state party, according to records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

A McAuliffe aide said the governor also hosted two fundraisers at his home for Northam—including on Sept. 13, the nominee’s birthday—that raised a combined $583,000. The other fundraiser took place on Jan. 7, two days after former Rep. Tom Perriello unexpectedly jumped into the race. The aide said the governor and first lady Dorothy McAuliffe have also appeared at 20 Northam campaign events, with more to come before Election Day.

McAuliffe also appeared in TV ads for Northam’s campaign in the closing months of the primary. In both ads, McAuliffe appears with Northam as a narrator introduces the former Army doctor and says he will oppose Trump.

Even before that, McAuliffe brought on consultant Michael Halle, who ran the state Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign in 2013, to maintain the party’s infrastructure before Northam and his team took over after winning the nomination, according to Democrats familiar with the campaign. McAuliffe also kicked off the party’s 2017 meetings with outside political allies that have gone on to spend millions on the race.

“It takes someone like Governor McAuliffe to just say, ‘This is the right thing.’ Otherwise we’re going to be sitting around twiddling our thumbs, asking and wondering what happened after Nov. 7,” said Virginia Democratic Party Chair Susan Swecker.

The outcome of the Virginia governor race has national implications as a bellwether not just for Trump-era politics but also for McAuliffe’s own political future. The next governor will have a say in redistricting, and McAuliffe chairs the Democratic Governors Association’s program to help Democrats in states where governors can affect the maps.

And McAuliffe, who has never ruled out a bid for president, would benefit from electoral evidence that voters preferred another four years of his policies.

In 2020, “Democrats are going to want someone who has demonstrated an ability to have both political and policy successes in swing states,” said Ferguson, who emphasized he has “no insight” into whether the former DNC chair will again seek a national stage.

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