RICHMOND — He quotes Thomas Jefferson and tells an anecdote about the voter he met at Thelma’s Chicken and Waffles in Roanoke.
To demonstrate bipartisanship, he included in his transition team John Chichester, the respected, moderate former Republican state senator.
Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) seems to have mastered the style expected of a chief executive in the Old Dominion. That played no small part in lifting him to a narrow victory Tuesday in a state where his lack of experience had led to a humiliating loss when he first ran for his party’s nomination four years ago.
But when it comes to the substance of governing, as opposed to the salesmanship of a campaign, McAuliffe still has a lot to prove.
Given the state’s political divisions, it’s not at all clear that he can achieve more than just being the guy who kept tea party firebrand Ken Cuccinelli II (R) out of the Executive Mansion.
“I’m not sure he understands how thin the ice is that he’s going to be on,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“It’s not just that Republicans are going to kill everything he tries,” Sabato said. “Once the Cuccinelli threat is removed, [Democrats] are going to go after him with a vengeance if he does anything wrong.”
McAuliffe’s potential difficulties were illustrated by a disconnect in a comment he made in his first encounter with the news media as governor-elect at the Capitol here Wednesday.
Asked how he would persuade the GOP-controlled House of Delegates to approve expanding Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor, McAuliffe launched into his familiar campaign spiel about how it’s a mainstream issue rather than a partisan one. This included mentioning that Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling supports Medicaid expansion.
Apparently, McAuliffe hadn’t read to the end of a front-page story in Wednesday’s Washington Post. It reported that Bolling was rethinking his position on Medicaid expansion because of the embarrassing problems in the rollout of President Obama’s health-care overhaul.
Regarding another high-profile issue, I was disappointed that McAuliffe hasn’t included ethics reform in his list of top priorities for his administration. (He sticks to the usuals: bipartisan solutions, jobs, schools, etc.)
Given the outsize role that scandals played in the campaign, the state is crying out for a crusade for honest government. That’s especially important because of the numerous questions raised over the years about McAuliffe’s own business dealings and campaign fundraising,
McAuliffe chuckled nervously when I asked him about this at the news conference. He repeated his pledges to decline gifts of more than $100 and to propose an independent ethics commission with “real teeth,” including subpoena power, to help clean up Richmond.
The back-and-forth with the media was short. A spokesman cut it off after just six questions. That continued the practice followed during the campaign of strictly limiting McAuliffe’s exposure to reporters for fear he’ll say something ignorant or inaccurate.
To McAuliffe’s credit, despite his verbal flubs, he generally managed in the campaign to convey an image of serious purpose and gravitas. That was an important and necessary break with his past reputation for overexuberant silliness, such as boasting about wrestling an alligator to procure a campaign donation.
McAuliffe also gets points for persistence. After being crushed in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2009, he spent four years traveling the state and cultivating supporters. That meant he was unopposed for the nomination this time around.
At the same time, luck played a considerable role in McAuliffe’s victory in the general election. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell was unexpectedly embroiled in a gifts scandal. As the campaign entered its final phase in early October, the federal government shutdown (which helped McAuliffe) overshadowed the health-care program’s troubles (which later hurt him).
Mainly, though, McAuliffe had the good fortune to run against Cuccinelli. It was easy to portray the Republican as an extremist when he had already defined himself as an outspoken advocate of the tea party and religious right.
“Politics is a spectrum, and they fell off the edge,” said Brennan Bilberry, McAuliffe’s communications director.
McAuliffe is now and always has been a remarkably successful salesman. He sold the Democratic Party to contributors, and now he’s sold himself to Virginia voters.
Eventually, though, every salesman has to deliver the goods. Virginians will be waiting.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). I’m taking a short break and will miss writing for Sunday. My column resumes next Thursday. For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.