By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
RICHMOND, Nov. 10 -- Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a wealthy businessman and Washington insider, filed paperwork Monday to launch a potential candidacy for Virginia governor.
Ending months of speculation, McAuliffe said he plans to spend the next two months traveling to "every corner of Virginia" to gauge interest in his possible run.
McAuliffe, 51, plans to announce his final decision Jan. 7 but will start raising money and hiring a staff this week.
A close friend of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton's, McAuliffe has lived in McLean for two decades. But until recently he has had little involvement in state government or politics. McAuliffe said his distance from Richmond will be the focal point of his exploratory effort.
"I don't think Richmond is working for people anymore," McAuliffe said. "I think sometimes Richmond, especially the House of Delegates, thinks too small. . . . Richmond is not doing what needs to be done, forward thinking, big bold ideas. If I decide to [run], I will be all about big, bold ideas."
McAuliffe's decision further complicates the first contested battle for the Democratic nomination for governor in more than two decades.
Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria) and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), who narrowly lost a bid for attorney general in 2005, have been campaigning for the job for months. But neither Deeds nor Moran has a big statewide following, and McAuliffe has been telling Democrats he believes he can win the June primary by overpowering Deeds and Moran with paid advertisements.
"There is no single [Democratic] standard-bearer this year," said Mark J. Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. "There is no person whose turn it is this time, and it's an open field."
Deeds, who might benefit in a primary by having two candidates from Northern Virginia, welcomed McAuliffe to the race Monday, saying he looked forward to "an open and honest discussion of the issues."
Moran's campaign noted that Democrats in Florida floated McAuliffe as a potential candidate for governor in that state in 2005, until they realized he lived in Virginia.
"Given Mr. McAuliffe's previous ambitions to run for governor of Florida, he needs to explain to the people of Virginia if he's doing this for the right reasons," Moran spokesman Jesse Ferguson said.
The potential for an expensive, nasty primary fight comes as Virginia Democrats are hoping to continue their recent winning streak in statewide elections.
Last week, Democrats picked up the state's second U.S. Senate seat and at least two, possibly three, U.S. House seats. Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama became the first Democrat in 44 years to carry Virginia. If Democrats can win the governor's race next year, they will strengthen their position going into redistricting in 2011, which could help them solidify their status as the majority party.
Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell is running unopposed for the Republican nomination for governor, giving him a big head start in reaching out to the swing voters who will decide the election. But Democrats could be the beneficiary next year of Obama's massive political organization in Virginia.
McAuliffe said in an interview that he is best suited to carry the Democratic banner because he will campaign as a business leader who can bring jobs to Virginia. McAuliffe also says he would be the strongest nominee because he could help finance the entire Democratic ticket.
"I have tremendous contacts everywhere and have many friends," he said. "If I decided to run, we could raise resources to run a first-class campaign. But I would also make sure House of Delegates and local races are well-funded and well-run."
Born in Syracuse, N.Y., McAuliffe began his business career as a teen and had several highly successful ventures.
He settled in Northern Virginia in the 1980s and became active in raising money for Democratic candidates and causes. He headed President Bill Clinton's finance team for the 1996 reelection campaign. He then served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005. He went on to chair Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign this year, often appearing on the cable talk shows.
Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said McAuliffe "is as serious as a heart attack" about running and should be viewed as a formidable contender.
"If you spend enough money in a primary, you can probably make a big dent," Saslaw said.
McAuliffe faces hurdles in winning over the party activists who are most likely to vote in a primary.
"He has no track record of involvement in state issues, and I think primary voters will take that into consideration," said Peter Rousselot, a Moran supporter who chairs the Arlington County Democratic Committee. "He can overcome that, but he has to demonstrate he can speak effectively and with some credibility on a lot of issues he has never spoken out on before."
Rozell said McAuliffe's state experience will undoubtedly be an issue, but he said Moran and Deeds must make the argument carefully. Many Northern Virginia voters, he notes, pay more attention to federal than state issues.
"At what point does someone establish his or her credentials as what some would say a 'real Virginian?' " Rozell asked. "Here is a man who has spent the better part of his adult life in Virginia."