RICHMOND — Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said Wednesday he will not join the crowded field of Democrats running for president, citing the need to raise money and campaign for Virginia General Assembly candidates as his successor, Gov. Ralph Northam, tries to recover from a blackface scandal.
“My heart was with Virginia, as much as I wanted to run for president,” McAuliffe said. “It kept tugging at me. . . . I just didn’t think I could walk away from Virginia.”
The 62-year-old Democrat has been publicly mulling a White House bid since leaving the Executive Mansion in January 2018. He originally said he would decide by March 31 but stayed mum as he continued visiting early-primary states.
McAuliffe said he came to his decision reluctantly, still relishing the notion of going toe-to-toe with President Trump. Just last week, McAuliffe created a buzz by saying in a speech and on Twitter that he’d dispatch Trump — a onetime campaign donor — like the 280-pound alligator he wrestled in a 1980 fundraising stunt.
“I had full intentions of running,” McAuliffe said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But after February, when we began to have the issues that we had in Virginia, people began to call. … ‘We’re really in a bad way. We really need your help.’ ”
He also acknowledged that, given the size of the Democratic field, it would be “hard to break through with the Virginia message.”
McAuliffe has spent a lifetime in Democratic politics, most notably as a record-breaking and colorful fundraiser for two of his closest friends: Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Socially liberal but friendly toward business, he was intentionally out of step with the left-leaning zeitgeist driving many 2020 contenders, which could have made him a tough sell to the party’s restive liberal base.
But McAuliffe tried to make the case that without jobs — and the economic incentives sometimes used to spur their creation — there is no tax base to bankroll social programs.
“You can talk about college for all or all these other things you want . . . It all takes money,” McAuliffe said in March. “Without the economic engine, all the great ideas and plans for the future mean nothing.”
In recent weeks, confidants said McAuliffe was waiting to see whether former vice president Joe Biden — a longtime friend — would run, occupying the same center-left, establishment lane as McAuliffe would have.
At least one Virginia lawmaker asked McAuliffe to forgo a bid and focus on helping state Democrats flip the General Assembly.
“I said, ‘I know we have national issues, but I’m concerned about Virginia right now,’ ” said state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), recounting a conversation this week when she urged him not to run. It’s a message Lucas said she had shared repeatedly with McAuliffe since February, when a racist photo surfaced from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page and he acknowledged wearing blackface in a dance contest that year.
The controversy has made it hard for Northam to play the leading role that a sitting governor typically assumes for his party — particularly in a crucial election year, when Democrats could win control of the state House and Senate by picking up just a couple of seats in each chamber. McAuliffe said he would be laser-focused on that goal between now and the November election.
McAuliffe, a businessman and entrepreneur, had never held public office when he squeaked past then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II in 2013 to become the state’s 72nd governor.
Though he ran as a pragmatic dealmaker, the GOP-controlled legislature never warmed to him, thwarting his marquee campaign promise to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. (By law, Virginia governors cannot seek a consecutive term.)
It did not help that he was inexorably linked to the Clintons. Most notably, McAuliffe put up $1.35 million to secure a mortgage for their home in Chappaqua, N.Y., when the couple left the White House.
In 2017, he was praised for the speech he gave after a woman was killed and two state troopers died in a helicopter crash amid white-supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville.
“I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today,” he said. “Go home. . . . There is no place for you here; there is no place for you in America.”
His supporters thought he could make a credible run for the White House based on his record as governor — and would be well-suited to withstand attacks from the current president.
“His speech after Charlottesville was, I thought, the best, most moving retort to the horror of Donald Trump,” said Lynn de Rothschild, a major Hillary Clinton donor. “You can’t really knock Terry McAuliffe down.”
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.
He helped lay the groundwork for Amazon’s selection of Crystal City in Arlington as a headquarters site, a project state officials estimate will bring $3.2 billion in tax revenue over 20 years.
McAuliffe famously laid out the stakes for the project, saying: “Whoever wins this thing is going to run for president.”
Linskey reported from Washington.