Off-Year Races Really Don’t Matter, Except When It’s McAuliffe and Clinton

Too much is made of the impact a governor’s race in a swing state can have on presidential contests. But this time, there’s something to it.

FALLS CHURCH, VA - OCTOBER 19: Hillary Rodham Clinton (L) and Terry McAuliffe (R) greet the crowd during a Women for Terry Endorsement Event at the State Theatre on October 19, 2013 in Falls Church, Virginia. Clinton endorsed Gubernatorial candidate McAuliffe during his politcal race for the Governor's office against Ken Cucccinelli. 
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Nov. 5, 2013, 5:02 p.m.

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.”

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