Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney

As Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe would have to woo GOP, learn the ropes

If Terry McAuliffe (D) becomes Virginia’s next governor, as polls suggest he will, what kind of chief executive would he be?

We can’t know for sure, of course. But I’ll make some educated guesses after interviewing a range of observers, including top state politicians from both parties.

The latest on Virginia politics

Clear leaders emerge in primary races in Northern Virginia, finance reports show

Clear leaders emerge in primary races in Northern Virginia, finance reports show

Republican Barbara Comstock in the 10th District and Democrat Don Beyer in the 8th District are ahead.

Va. Republicans aren’t blinking in Medicaid showdown

Va. Republicans aren’t blinking in Medicaid showdown

Although expansion of coverage is backed by some important donors, GOP lawmakers maintain opposition.

In 10th District debate, GOP hopefuls target front-runner

Six Virginians depict themselves as the conservative heirs to retiring U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf.

Read more

McAuliffe’s overall success or failure would hinge largely on whether his world-class schmoozing and salesmanship could overcome strong resistance from the Republican-dominated House of Delegates.

He would have to hire a lot of smart help to offset his lack of knowledge of Virginia state government. He also would have to rein in his mercenary tendencies and set a needed example of rigorous integrity in Richmond.

Although the election is nearly three weeks away, recent opinion surveys have consistently shown McAuliffe ahead of his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli II.

If he wins, McAuliffe would surely create a new style for the office. More colorful and showy than his predecessors, he would become Virginia’s Salesman in Chief, touring the nation and world pressing companies to invest in the commonwealth.

His proclivity to exaggerate or otherwise misstate facts would create a new parlor game in Richmond: What detail did Terry get wrong today?

On politics and policy, McAuliffe would enter office with one significant advantage and three major challenges.

The asset: In his first moment in office, before he signed an executive order or proposed a bill, McAuliffe would fulfill 90 percent of his mandate merely by not being Cuccinelli.

McAuliffe’s main pitch to the electorate is that he offers a comparatively moderate, pragmatic alternative to the pro-tea party, religious right views long espoused by his rival.

As long as McAuliffe steered toward the center overall, he would satisfy the bulk of his supporters.

His biggest challenge would be dealing effectively with the House of Delegates, which is virtually certain to remain under GOP control after the election. His first big tests in the legislative session that will begin in January would be expanding Medicaid and passing ethics reform.

Republicans would be reluctant to give McAuliffe any significant victories. They did so with a previous Democratic governor, Mark Warner, and later regretted it when Warner — now a senator — became enormously popular.

“Why would they create another monster, from their point of view?” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

For McAuliffe to succeed, it would be essential for him to establish a personal relationship with House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford).

It also would be helpful to bring high-profile Republicans into his cabinet. The most obvious possibility would be Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who has strongly criticized Cuccinelli.

McAuliffe’s second challenge would be getting up to speed on Virginia government, and recruiting a strong staff to help him navigate Richmond. He has never held elective office or worked in the capital. He lost a Northern Virginia business group’s endorsement partly because of his sketchy expertise.

“Talking to him, it’s just amazing what he doesn’t know. He has a sufficient grasp to get him through campaigns and debates, but not necessarily through the nuts and bolts of governing,” said a prominent Richmond politician who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending the candidate.

Like others, this politician stressed that McAuliffe’s weakness is “solvable” if he “surrounds himself with some very skillful people.”

McAuliffe’s third challenge as governor would be restoring Virginians’ faith in the honesty of their government. That has been shaken by the controversy over gifts from a state businessman to Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his family and, to a lesser extent, to Cuccinelli.

To fully accomplish that, McAuliffe would practically have to undergo an identity transplant. For two decades, he has relished in and promoted his reputation as a fast-talking deal-maker willing to do whatever it took to raise millions of dollars for the Democratic Party.

He made millions for himself, as well, and some of those deals are now haunting him. An electric car company McAuliffe co-founded is under federal investigation. It recently emerged that he invested in a Rhode Island enterprise that was later caught using identities of terminally ill patients to scam insurers.

Given McAuliffe’s shortcomings, many Virginia Democrats wonder why their party couldn’t find a more appealing candidate. It’s partly because the Democrats have a weak bench on which to draw. Also, nobody realistic wanted to challenge McAuliffe because of his enormous fundraising advantage.

For Democrats overall, though, it matters little. They’re just relieved that their man seems set to stop Cuccinelli.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.

Read what others are saying