Lack of Va. Roots Doomed McAuliffe's Bid

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Terry McAuliffe hurled himself into the Virginia gubernatorial campaign with typical gusto. But in the end, his brassy personality, bundles of money and indelible ties to the Clintons could not compensate for his lack of deep roots in the state's Democratic politics, party strategists said yesterday.

The stunning margin of victory by state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) in the Democratic primary Tuesday raised a host of questions. Were McAuliffe's assets as a fundraiser and national party spokesman overvalued by political analysts? Was the early leader in the polls ultimately hurt by his connection to the Clintons? Was he simply on the wrong side of the Obama-Clinton divide that defined Democratic politics in last year's presidential campaign?

Clearly, McAuliffe's financial assets were overvalued. He significantly outspent Deeds and former delegate Brian Moran and still lost to Deeds by 2 to 1. "It proves," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said yesterday, "that while we all focus on money, the Beatles were right, that money can't buy me love."

McAuliffe's connection to former president Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- he is one of the former president's closest friends and chaired Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign -- was seen by Democratic strategists as more of a positive than a negative, but with clear limitations.

"I think it was an advantage and helped him raise money," strategist Tad Devine said. "President Clinton gave him visibility."

McAuliffe senior adviser Mo Elleithee argued that the former president helped the candidate at a critical stage of the campaign. "I think he was a huge asset," he said. "I think he was a great validator. I think he helped us energize and mobilize our supporters."

But a former adviser to Secretary Clinton said the connection "was clearly not an asset. I don't know whether it was a liability." Why? "It's now been nine years since [Bill Clinton] left office," this strategist said. "He never won the state. His wife got trounced there. Polling may have shown him to be popular, but there's no real evidence that he or his wife were ever electoral forces in the state."

A Deeds adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the contest, put it differently, suggesting that while the former president remains very popular with Democrats, his ability to command votes for someone else has become more limited. "I think Clinton's numbers are solid," he said. "I just think -- has it worn out its welcome as a major motivating factor for Democrats?"

Moran tried to make McAuliffe's Clinton ties an issue and sought to exploit any lingering divisions from last year's primary contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton. He ran radio ads in Hampton Roads and Richmond recalling McAuliffe's role as chairman of a Clinton campaign that branded Obama as too inexperienced to be president. "The fact is, if Terry McAuliffe had his way, Barack Obama wouldn't be our president today," the ad's narrator said.

Elleithee dismissed the heated Obama-Clinton division from the 2008 race as a factor in the gubernatorial primary. He pointed out that, once the Democratic presidential nomination was settled, the Obama campaign recruited McAuliffe as a surrogate in Virginia and organized several statewide tours for him to help promote Obama.

If the Clinton connection proved to be of little help in attracting voters for McAuliffe, there was no sense among Democratic strategists yesterday that his defeat would tarnish the Clinton brand. One Clinton loyalist said that a measure of the Clintons' lasting impact is the number of former Clinton administration officials now serving in senior roles in Obama's government, and that the couple's legacy will be affected far more by Hillary Clinton's performance as secretary of state.

"I don't think the Clinton chapter is yet closed," he said.

For McAuliffe, everything seemed to be working in the opening stages of the campaign. He not only commanded the airwaves with his ads but also dominated free media with his outsize personality. But his early lead in the polls disguised the fact that none of the three candidates were well known to the state's Democratic voters and that of the three, McAuliffe had the least connection to those voters.

Democratic strategists also said McAuliffe's lack of Virginia political roots -- though he has lived in the state for nearly two decades -- made it more difficult for him to explain why he wanted to be governor. As a novice candidate, that proved to be a weakness.

"My guess is that the McAuliffe campaign did a few too many things that accentuated the fact that he was a Virginia outsider," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "This is a campaign that particularly needed to mobilize Virginia voices and needed to demonstrate that he connects to the state. But at most of the forks in the road, they made decisions that emphasized that he was a national figure and not a Virginia figure."

What may have been more significant in the Democratic primary than McAuliffe's Clinton connection was how voters gauged the three candidates as potential successors to former governor Mark Warner, now a U.S. senator, and current Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

McAuliffe ran with a pledge to shake up Richmond but had more difficulty placing himself in the tradition of Warner and Kaine. He sought to identify himself with Warner's business background, but his big personality represented the antithesis of both Warner and Kaine.

White House officials were prepared to throw their full support behind whoever won the primary, but Deeds may be a more comfortable fit for the Obama team than McAuliffe -- not because of differences during the 2008 nomination battle but because of Deeds's personality.

Obama advisers see Virginia's election as particularly crucial this fall, more so than the gubernatorial race in New Jersey, where incumbent Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) faces a tough campaign against Republican prosecutor Christopher Christie.

Given how much the Obama team put into Virginia last year, it is committed to continuing a string of Democratic victories. Advisers know that a loss in the state would be interpreted as a defeat for Obama far more than a loss in New Jersey would be.

Deeds's impressive performance in every region of Virginia gives them confidence that he can prevail in November against Republican Robert F. McDonnell, a former state attorney general.

"The White House's political interest is simple: Win the election," Devine said of the Obama administration's thinking about the Democratic field. "Who can best win the election? Probably Deeds."

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company