Both campaigns — coterie of pollsters, fundraisers, admakers and turnout specialists — will be widely watched because Virginia’s gubernatorial contest is considered the most competitive proving ground for Republicans and Democrats ahead of next year’s midterm races and the 2016 presidential election.
While Cuccinelli’s retention of longtime aides is a strategic move to stick with what has worked, McAuliffe’s decision to go with a new team is unusual because candidates, even those who have lost, rarely clean house so thoroughly.
“I’d say 100 percent turnover is quite unusual,” said Republican operative Kevin Madden, who worked for Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “Usually what you have is a core nucleus of folks that have worked for you for a long time.”
The benefit, Madden said, is that “campaigns go through some very difficult times . . . and it’s usually that familiarity that the former staff have with each other that helps you through those times.”
Patrick Hallahan, a longtime McAuliffe confidante, is the lone aide from the last race who is back for the second round, now as a senior adviser. But former campaign manager Mike Henry is now chief of staff to Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D). Top adviser Mo Elleithee and pollster Pete Brodnitz are working with other clients. From the press shop, Delacey Skinner has moved on to a consulting business, and Elisabeth Smith is an adviser to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
Although circumstances differ with each aide, some Democrats said privately that both McAuliffe and his team were disillusioned after the primary loss, making it unsurprising that a different cast would be in place this year.
Jessica Taylor, who analyzes gubernatorial contests for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said a clean slate made sense given McAuliffe’s poor performance in 2009.
“What Democrats in the state say [McAuliffe] has to do is run a different campaign, a more disciplined campaign . . . ,” Taylor said. “Especially four years later, he probably thought it was time to bring in some new blood.”
In a race with implications beyond Virginia’s borders, the new lineup is heavy on national experience, with a few local veterans.
Campaign manager Robby Mook comes from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he ran Dave Marsden’s (Fairfax) 2005 House of Delegates campaign. Levar Stoney, the deputy campaign manager, worked for the man who beat McAuliffe in the 2009 primary, state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), before serving as executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party.
Like Mook, political director Brynne Craig, communications chief Brennan Bilberry and press secretary Josh Schwerin have worked at the DCCC. Policy director Evan Feinman comes from the liberal-leaning Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond think tank.
Pollsters Geoff Garin and Fred Yang are now on board, with Garin a veteran of Sen. Mark Warner’s (D) campaigns. McAuliffe senior adviser Ellen Qualls worked for then-governor Warner before joining the staff of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and then the 2012 Obama campaign. The campaign’s finance director, Andrew Smith, also worked for Warner and Obama, while field director Michelle Kleppe toiled for Obama’s Wisconsin campaign.
McAuliffe did not pick up anyone from Kaine’s successful Senate campaign except direct mail consultant Alan Moore. But McAuliffe has hired people with ties to a potential 2016 candidate — Mook, Hallahan and Garin all worked for the 2008 bid of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a longtime McAuliffe friend.
“Part of the reason Terry has been a successful guy is because he works the phones and brings people together to get the best ideas,” Schwerin said. “We’re lucky to have the 2009 team helping us even as they’ve moved on to new day jobs.”
Meanwhile, Cuccinelli brought back the core of his 2009 operation, including consultant Chris LaCivita, political director Noah Wall and finance director Meredith Quillen Wall (the Walls met on the 2009 campaign and later married).
Dave Rexrode, Cuccinelli’s campaign manager, is a former head of the state Republican party who previously worked for McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign. Pollster Glenn Bolger, another McDonnell veteran, is also on board, along with a new press team: Jahan Wilcox, formerly of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Anna Nix, whose resume includes campaign stints in Maryland and Florida.
Cuccinelli’s aides know him well and, as Taylor pointed out, “they’ve managed controversial candidates before.” LaCivita and Cuccinelli’s media consultants, Terry Nelson and Jon Downs, also teamed up on the hard-fought reelection campaign of Rep. Alan West (R-Fla.).
Because Cuccinelli is still attorney general — Democrats have criticized him for not resigning as past occupants who ran for governor did — he also has a state-funded staff in Richmond. And issues such as this year’s landmark transportation deal, a politically sensitive bill whose legality had to be assessed by the attorney general, can sometime create tensions between staffs as they discern which should speak for Cuccinelli.
Part of Cuccinelli’s media strategy has been guided by a third group: Shirley & Banister, the firm hired to publicize his book, “The Last Line of Defense.” The promotional effort included radio appearances in places such as Iowa and New Hampshire, moves his Virginia campaign team likely would not have chosen because they did little to help his standing back home.
“There’s always that tension in every campaign of people who are from the state and not from the state,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic campaign veteran. “People are somewhat lucky in Virginia in that it’s so close to D.C. There’s a lot of very talented people who live there and know the state very well.”