RICHMOND — Two forces of nature — tornadoes and Bill Clinton — were touching down in Virginia.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), torn between the two, went with the storms. He chose to spend Wednesday night monitoring deadly twisters instead of attending a rally with a former president and dear friend who had come to Richmond days ahead of a primary crucial to his wife’s presidential hopes.
It’s not the first time that McAuliffe has been out of sync with Hillary Clinton. His recent gun compromise with Republicans and support for offshore drilling and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal have put McAuliffe at odds with some of her positions, complicating his ability to rally liberal Democrats to her cause.
Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have tried to make political hay out of those differences, as have Republicans, who would like to see Clinton damaged by a less-than-decisive victory over Sanders in Virginia’s Democratic primary on Super Tuesday. They say Clinton, while wooing the party’s liberal base, has leaned so far to the left that she is out of step with one of her best-known cheerleaders.
But there is another explanation, one offered even by some GOP critics who once believed that McAuliffe wanted to be a swing-state governor only to help put another Clinton in the White House. They say McAuliffe is maturing in the job and growing moderate as a result.
“Terry McAuliffe has figured out being governor of Virginia is an actual job, and he likes it,” said one Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to make what was, for him, a painfully frank admission: “Terry McAuliffe is not a terrible governor.”
Administration officials say McAuliffe has always put the needs of Virginia before political considerations. It’s an approach that can still pay dividends, because a governor’s endorsement might carry more weight if he is popular than if he’s in lock step with whomever he’s backing.
“If you do what’s in the best interests of Virginians, he will be rewarded and so will his friend Hillary,” said Brian Moran, McAuliffe’s secretary of public safety and homeland security. “You do your job as governor, and the rest will take care of itself.”
There is no question that the governor wants to deliver Virginia for Clinton on Tuesday and in November, if she wins the nomination. He has spent most of his adult life in the orbit of the Clintons, as a fundraiser, personal friend and political adviser.
“We’re going to shock the world again on March 1 with a big victory for Hillary here in Virginia,” McAuliffe said at the opening of her Richmond office in February.
In Virginia, Clinton was up by 27 points in a new poll last week. She made two stops in Virginia on Monday, a move that looked like an effort to rack up a “statement victory,” not stave off a loss, said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist.
Outside of attending a few rallies, much of what McAuliffe has done for Clinton has remained largely below the radar. He has built up the state party’s infrastructure and regularly conferred with both Clintons and Robby Mook, manager of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and of McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign for governor.
“At this point, his role is more about mechanics,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report. “Virginia’s pretty familiar territory for the campaign, especially Robby. But obviously, there’s no bigger Hillary Clinton booster than McAuliffe.”
Some Clinton allies have expressed concern that the effort in Virginia has been too laid-back until recently, noting that rank-and-file lawmakers were asked to endorse Clinton only about a week ago.
“There’s no reason the governor couldn’t have a political person asking us for use of our email lists, asking us to appear places, asking us to endorse before February,” said a Democratic legislator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order not to offend McAuliffe. “I think she’ll win, but we should have been working real hard to maximize her delegate count and lower his percentage.”
But Stephen J. Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist, said McAuliffe has been understandably focused on governing.
“The governor, at the moment, has a very full plate between the weather, touring in Virginia this week and the controversies that come up during the legislative session,” Farnsworth said. “Now’s not the best time to hit the road day after day on a political campaign.”
As he’s gone about governing, McAuliffe has sometimes found himself compromising with Republicans.
The man who ran for office bragging about his F rating from the National Rifle Association just struck a deal with the group. The candidate who vowed not to sign a budget that did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act is poised to approve his third. The recipient of $1.6 million in campaign cash from NextGen Climate Action Committee supports offshore drilling.
McAuliffe has always cast himself as a blend of partisan stalwart and pragmatic dealmaker, similar to Bill Clinton, who made deals with the GOP on welfare and trade, and Hillary Clinton, who bills herself as a “progressive who gets things done.”
“He’s one of those politicians who would say he’s not going to let the perfect stand in the way of the good,” Holsworth said.
But with Republicans in Richmond dug in against Medicaid and McAuliffe in general, it took the governor two years to nail his first big legislative deal — the gun compromise. The legislation, which McAuliffe signed into law Friday, provided a stark contrast with Hillary Clinton, who has been running hard against the NRA. Her campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the bills.
The legislation expands the right to carry concealed weapons in exchange for tighter restrictions on domestic abusers and voluntary background checks at gun shows. Some gun-control advocates called the compromise a betrayal. McAuliffe said it was a sensible compromise on a tough issue.
Moran, who negotiated the gun deal for the administration, was at the governor’s side on Wednesday night as McAuliffe bowed out of his appearance with Bill Clinton to monitor the storm from a situation room on Capitol Square. The next day, McAuliffe and Moran took a bumpy helicopter tour to survey damage from the storms, which killed four people in the state.
As the storms approached, McAuliffe seemed to scrap his political plans with “no hesitation,” said Tucker Martin, a Republican consultant who was the spokesman for McAuliffe’s predecessor, former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R).
“Seems like an easy decision,” Martin said, but one that he said politicians often get wrong.
The real test will come in the fall, if Clinton is in a competitive general election, he said. “If we get into October . . . and if it’s close, we will see how Terry McAuliffe is as a surrogate and governor in a state one of his closest friends must have,” Martin said. “But we’re not there yet.”