Among those who preceded Terry McAuliffe in seeking the governorship of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson polished his credentials by penning the Declaration of Independence. Patrick Henry declared, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
McAuliffe made his name muscling the wealthy to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the Democratic Party. His signature line, in a 1999 interview: “You help me, I’ll help you. That’s politics.”
The former Democratic National Committee chairman, who has consistently led in opinion polls, is one of his generation’s preeminent practitioners of “transactional” politics.
In Virginia, McAuliffe has again demonstrated his prowess on the fundraising side. He has pulled in $25 million this year, according to the most recent report. That’s $8 million more than the total raised by his Republican opponent, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II.
But what about the other half of the exchange? McAuliffe’s donors have anted up plenty of money. What can they expect from McAuliffe if he becomes the state’s 72nd governor?
To answer that, I asked some of McAuliffe’s largest contributors to describe the gains they foresee reaping if he wins. I focused on his supporters in the women’s rights, environmental and labor movements.
It turns out that McAuliffe is going to face serious challenges keeping all his backers happy. That’s partly because GOP conservatives will almost certainly maintain control of the House of Delegates and frustrate any liberal agenda.
If McAuliffe leans too hard on the legislators to satisfy his supporters, it would betray his campaign promise to run a bipartisan, compromise-oriented administration.
In addition, McAuliffe has spread his net so wide for donations that some of his supporters have contradictory goals. For example, he has received contributions from organized labor as well as some business groups.
The potential difficulties haven’t dampened fundraising, largely because McAuliffe’s supporters are helping him primarily out of self-defense. They fear what Cuccinelli would do, given his record as a leader of the tea party and religious right.
“We have seen a decade of Ken Cuccinelli in state government, and we know what that would look like,” said Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Planned Parenthood’s Virginia political action committee.
Planned Parenthood has donated $1.1 million to McAuliffe’s campaign and is his third-largest donor.
Even after providing such strong support, the most that women’s health advocates can realistically expect from McAuliffe is that he’d use his executive powers to keep open the state’s 18 abortion clinics.
That means appointing a state health commissioner who would grant waivers to ensure that no more facilities are shuttered by unnecessary building-code restrictions adopted under Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).
It’s not at all clear that McAuliffe could provide for reopening two clinics shut down in Fairfax City and Norfolk. GOP strength in the legislature also means that there’s little chance of overturning the much-derided law requiring women to have an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion.
Environmental groups are also tempering their hopes. They’re not happy about McAuliffe’s promise during a visit to coal country in May that he would ensure that “this vital industry” will continue to grow.
“The reality is you’re never going to agree with any candidate 100 percent of the time,” said Jeff Gohringer, national press secretary of the League of Conservation Voters. “We disagree with Terry McAuliffe on some issues involving coal.”
The league’s Virginia branch has donated $1.6 million to the campaign and is McAuliffe’s No. 2 contributor, behind the Democratic Governors Association. It’s with him because McAuliffe, unlike Cuccinelli, is concerned about climate change.
Environmentalists are also enthusiastic that McAuliffe wants to promote solar and wind power and other renewable-energy businesses in Virginia. That would be great for the planet but also could spark an explosion of crony capitalism if the administration crafts policies to help its friends.
It would be impossible for McAuliffe to fully resolve the conflicts between his supporters in labor and management. Three of his top eight contributors are unions, which hate Virginia’s right-to-work laws. But McAuliffe, partly to secure business support, has pledged not to interfere with those laws.
Tim Waters, national political director of the United Steel Workers, said the union is supporting McAuliffe anyway because he “has a priority of investing in infrastructure,” such as bridges, roads and government buildings.
That would create a lot of jobs for steelworkers, but where would McAuliffe find the money? He has promised not to raise taxes, and he has listed education as his priority if new revenue becomes available.
“You help me, I help you.” Even with low expectations, McAuliffe could find it hard to fulfill his half of the deal.
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.