Terry McAuliffe buttonholed Amazon honchos last week at a Washington gala like the go-go-go jobs governor he once was.
“Folks, we want it all,” Virginia’s former governor recalled telling the executives at the Ireland Funds soiree. By that, he meant Virginia would gladly take all 50,000 high-paying jobs that Amazon once planned to split between Virginia and New York — until pushback from the left led the company to nix the Queens half of the deal.
When he left office in January 2018, McAuliffe appeared to be well positioned for a White House run as a socially liberal, business-friendly Democrat from an important swing state. But 14 months later, it’s unclear if there is room for McAuliffe, 62, in a party that seems to be pulling leftward.
The expanding Democratic field includes contenders ranging from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who want to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for social programs, to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who wants national paid parental leave, to tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who supports a universal basic income.
Complicating McAuliffe’s deliberations — his self-imposed March 31 deadline for a decision is looming — is former vice president Joe Biden.
A friend of 40 years, Biden would occupy the same center-left, establishment lane. If Biden gets in, McAuliffe would more than likely stay out, some friends say.
“The only time you’ll ever see the words ‘deferential’ and ‘Terry McAuliffe’ in the same sentence is [with regard to] Joe Biden,” said one associate, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about McAuliffe’s private deliberations.
But another person close to McAuliffe — who was in South Carolina on Tuesday for private meetings with Democratic legislators and other potential supporters — said the former governor has not ruled out running even if Biden gets in, noting that McAuliffe has executive experience that Biden lacks.
“It’s absolutely a factor,” that person said of a potential Biden candidacy, “but it’s not the deciding factor.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, McAuliffe and his wife, Dorothy, were at the Dubliner, the iconic Irish bar in a hotel near the U.S. Capitol, when he teased the crowd.
“Everybody in this room, if I run for president, should vote for me for one reason,” McAuliffe said, explaining how he helped the owner, Danny Coleman, save the bar from eviction 20 years ago. “We raised the money to buy this hotel and keep the Dubliner. So every time you drink, you drink to Terry McAuliffe. And it is time for an Irishman to be back in the White House.”
It was not clear which Irishman he meant.
If Biden does run and McAuliffe does not, associates say, the former governor could serve as a highly visible surrogate — not just to help his friend but also to try to reel his party back from what he sees as a leftward drift endangering its chances to win back the White House.
“He’s going to be impactful whether he gets in himself or whether he supports someone,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster associated with Biden.
Left-wing resistance to McAuliffe has surprised some allies, who note that he went to bat for liberal social causes as he was luring business to his state.
“Governor McAuliffe was the most progressive governor in Virginia history,” said former chief of staff Paul Reagan, noting that McAuliffe removed the Confederate flag from license plates, restored voting rights to 173,000 ex-felons and expanded abortion rights and gay rights.
McAuliffe made the case to the Republican-controlled legislature that Virginia needed to be friendly to women, LGBT people and racial minorities if it was going to attract investment.
“We became open, welcoming,” the Democrat said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last month. “That’s why we got Amazon.”
(Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
These days, McAuliffe argues the converse to liberals in his party: Democrats need to promote business — sometimes with economic incentives — to have the tax base to bankroll social programs.
“You can talk about college for all or all these other things you want. What does it all take? It all takes money,” McAuliffe said in an interview last week. “Without the economic engine, all the great ideas and plans for the future mean nothing. They’re all talk.”
Raj Fernando, a Chicago entrepreneur and major donor to Hillary Clinton, said McAuliffe is the only Democrat he would be willing to back in a primary — precisely because the former governor is socially liberal and business friendly.
“To make the world go round, you need jobs, you need money, you need tax revenue to pay for these things,” he said.
Even McAuliffe’s harshest Republican critics acknowledged that he was a tireless promoter for Virginia, leading 35 foreign trade missions and attracting roughly $20 billion in capital investment and 207,000 new jobs.
One company McAuliffe landed is CoStar Group. The D.C. real estate data firm was close to putting a large research and software development facility in North Carolina in 2016 when that state passed legislation known as HB2, dictating that transgender people use the bathroom corresponding with their sex at birth.
“There was no way we were going to locate there when they were moving in that direction,” said CoStar founder Andrew C. Florance. With an incentive package half the size of what North Carolina was dangling, McAuliffe lured the company to Richmond, where today it employs 700.
“We’ll generate roughly $50 million, $60 million in tax payments to Virginia, and they’ll give us back $4 million or $6 million,” Florance said, referring to incentives such as job training. “I don’t know how anybody can call it anything but a success story.”
But some on the Democratic Party’s left call those incentives “corporate welfare.” And they see McAuliffe as precisely the wrong face for the party, whether as a presidential nominee or surrogate.
“Terry McAuliffe represents the Democratic Party that catered to big donors and was about bundling [contributions] and maxing out,” said Rebecca Katz, a New York-based Democratic strategist.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren, called McAuliffe “a consummate political insider” who is “cozy with big corporations.”
A number of Democratic presidential hopefuls say they won’t take money from corporate political action committees or super PACS, including Sanders, Warren, Gillibrand, former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
“To defeat Trump,” Green said, “we need someone who voters see as authentically challenging corporate power and the political establishment.”
It’s enough to make someone such as David Bossie, who once had a movie made about McAuliffe’s sometimes-controversial business career titled “Fast Terry,” sound almost like an admirer.
“Terry McAuliffe would give the field fits if he gets in, because he’s very smart, very hard-working, and he would bring a depth and breadth to the field that is sorely lacking,” said Bossie, president of Citizens United, a conservative advocacy group that won a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited, and largely undisclosed, political spending by corporations and unions.
He hastened to add: “I’m not being a fan here. I’m being critical of the other candidates.”
“During his governorship, I saw that he wanted Virginia open for business,” said Bossie, who was Donald Trump’s 2016 deputy campaign manager. “The Democratic Party seems to have lurched even further to the left in their blinding hatred of President Trump, and they’re taking on unserious policy positions, as far as being against capitalism and for socialism, that will not sell well in a general election.”
Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said McAuliffe’s long association with Bill and Hillary Clinton — he is a close friend and fundraiser — is a bigger political liability than his business-friendly approach.
“He does have a good story to tell in Virginia,” she said. “The question is whether that’s enough for a primary electorate that is looking for the candidate who can beat Trump, which in many ways is the candidate who is not going to come with a lot of baggage. . . . Show me how you can beat Donald Trump when he runs an ad showing you hugging Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton? Tell me how you’re going to fight the perception that you aren’t simply part of the dreaded establishment and the swamp?”
Jesse Ferguson, deputy national press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said Democrats of all stripes won primaries in last year’s midterms.
“The commonality was authenticity,” he said. “And when you look at 2020, you can win this primary from the left or the middle. If Terry McAuliffe tried to remake himself into a fire-breathing populist instead of a middle-class economics guy, no one would believe it.”
“But if he tries to run as a guy focused on middle-class economics, people have every reason to believe it because he’s been doing it since he was doing driveway maintenance at age 14,” Ferguson said, referring to McAuliffe’s earliest entrepreneurial efforts.
Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf called McAuliffe “totally authentic.”
“I think his personality and the way he carries himself, he’s in a real position to be the counterpoint to Trump,” Elmendorf said. “And I think that’s going to be more important than, ‘Are you for Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal?’ ”
Former congressman Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) — who unsuccessfully ran for president twice, once with a youthful McAuliffe as his finance chairman — said McAuliffe has a good message for the party.
“There’s definitely a place for him in the race if he decides to do it,” said Gephardt, who served as minority and majority leader over a 28-year career in the House. “He did a great job as governor. Everything I’ve seen and heard is A-plus. And his main emphasis was jobs, which always is a major issue in any campaign.”
Others see a tough climate for him.
“A few years ago, coming off of an incredibly successful governorship where he proved that he could be a leader of the commonwealth, he would be right at the top of just about anybody’s list for president,” said Todd Haymore, McAuliffe’s former secretary of commerce and trade. “But now with the party seemingly moving further and further left . . . Terry McAuliffe could be the odd man out.”