By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008
RICHMOND -- With his booming voice, quick wit and gregarious nature, Terry McAuliffe established a reputation as one of the world's best political fundraisers, soaking up hundreds of millions of dollars for Democratic causes and candidates.
Now, after spending much of his adult life soliciting donations for others -- most notably, former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- McAuliffe is considering using those prodigious skills and extensive contacts for himself, as a candidate for governor of Virginia. McAuliffe's potential candidacy has created what Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, calls "the perfect fundraising storm."
Virginia is a state with no limits on how much an individual, corporation or union can donate to a candidate running for state office, and some say McAuliffe could wage an $80 million campaign -- triple what Kaine spent four years ago -- if he is the Democratic nominee.
"I think the sky is the limit in terms of Terry McAuliffe's fundraising potential in Virginia," Toner said. "I suspect there will be a lot more interest in Virginia politics in Manhattan and Palm Beach than there usually is."
Already, McAuliffe is showing what's possible. Consider the courtship of Randal J. Kirk, a billionaire who has long been one of the biggest political donors in the state.
Brian J. Moran of Alexandria and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath, two Virginia Democrats running for governor, spent years wooing Kirk. But in mid-October, a newcomer to the Virginia political scene, McAuliffe, stopped by Kirk's Radford home to chat up his own potential bid.
Kirk, who has given Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) $660,000 since January 2006, had not met McAuliffe before. Yet they got along so well during their three-hour lunch that Kirk broke out the moonshine.
"I wanted him to know where he was," Kirk recalled.
During their meeting, McAuliffe did not ask Kirk for a campaign contribution. But McAuliffe made such an impression that Kirk did something a few weeks later that he said he had not done before: He called McAuliffe and pledged his support in advance of a contested primary.
"He has an astonishingly strong personality," said Kirk, a biotech and investment mogul. "When you meet someone, you often get a gut feeling whether this is an integrated personality. Are they the same with Joe Blow as they are with me? To me, this guy just seems utterly consistent."
McAuliffe has said he won't announce until Jan. 7 whether he will officially enter the race, but his efforts in recent weeks to start locking up large donors have reshaped the fight for the Democratic nomination.
This month, Moran resigned from the House of Delegates so he could campaign and raise money full time, a direct result of McAuliffe's considering jumping into the race.
Under Virginia law, state legislators cannot solicit donations during the 45-day legislative session that starts Jan. 14. McAuliffe is not bound by the law, and Moran gave up the House seat he had held since 1996 to try to keep pace.
But Moran and Deeds, who plans to remain in the Senate, face enormous hurdles in trying to keep up with McAuliffe's fundraising.
A friend of the Clintons, McAuliffe raised more than $200 million for Bill Clinton in the 1990s. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005, he oversaw $500 million in party fundraising. McAuliffe chaired Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, which raised about $220 million.
Hassan Namazee, a New York investment banker who was a top fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, said McAuliffe has a gift for persuading people to invest in causes that matter. He has "the most fundamental skill that you have to have when you ask people for money. . . . He makes you feel good when he asks you to write a check."
Advisers to Moran and Deeds said they had been expecting that it would cost about $3 million to win the June 9 primary, but McAuliffe could spend triple that amount, launching a wave of television advertisements early in the spring that could drown out his opponents' messages.
Political strategists said it's not clear whether money will make the difference. In the 2006 primary contest between Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) and lawyer Harris Miller, Webb was outspent 4 to 1. But he won the race because antiwar activists and liberal bloggers were drawn to his military background and opposition to the war in Iraq.
"I think the money is important, but you have to have a message," said Democratic strategist Kristen Denny Todd, who was Webb's communications director. "I strongly feel that Virginians expect it to come from the heart and come from the soul, and I don't know if it can be manufactured or if Virginians can be bought."
Deeds and Moran are trying to play down the role that money could have on the race.
"I can't keep up with him, but I don't think I have to. I just have to get my message out," Deeds said.
Moran said the campaign "won't be about who can raise the most money. It will be about who has a proven record for Virginia families."
During a recent candidates forum, Moran snapped at McAuliffe, "Virginia is not for sale."
Mo Elleithee, a strategist for McAuliffe, said the campaign is sensitive to assertions that he is trying to buy the election with national money. Elleithee said McAuliffe still has to prove he can gain support from Democratic donors in Virginia.
Instead of holding big fundraisers in preparation for his first campaign finance report in January, McAuliffe has been sending out e-mails soliciting $5 donations that are designed to build his contact list and create the impression that his campaign is being powered by low-dollar contributors. At the same time, McAuliffe has been visiting the homes and offices of deep-pocketed Democratic donors in Virginia, many of whom are skeptical of him. Last month, he met with 30 lawyers and lobbyists at the Richmond office of McGuireWoods, one of the state's largest law firms.
"People afterwards told me they were just blown away by his energy level and enthusiasm," said Eva T. Hardy, a McGuireWoods consultant.
McAuliffe has extensive business experience, which he says gives him the ability to promote Virginia to corporate executives as a place to set up operations. Kirk said McAuliffe sold him on the idea of having a governor with a business background.
"When I hire a chief executive, it helps his chances if he has a lot of contacts within the industry we want him to work," Kirk said. "Virginia is a business."
But in Richmond, conversation about McAuliffe always seems to come back to money. Phil Cox, campaign manager for Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP nominee for governor, said that without McAuliffe in the race, a major-party nominee would have to spend $25 million to $35 million to wage a successful general election campaign. But with McAuliffe in the race, the dollar amounts seem almost without limit. In recent weeks, Richmond has been engulfed in speculation that McAuliffe plans to raise as much as $80 million.
"I have heard a lot of money -- money that this state has never seen," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).
Cox said Republicans have accepted that McAuliffe's money could be a big factor in next year's campaign. He referred to President-elect Barack Obama's success in Virginia this year against Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee.
"By all accounts, Obama outspent McCain 2 to 1 in Virginia," Cox said. "You can't tell me that didn't make a difference. Money matters in politics."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.