McAuliffe, 63, made a wide-ranging pitch, promising to build a “stronger and fairer” economy, continue the fight for civil rights, ensure access to affordable health care and boost wages, affordable housing and clean energy. But his focus Wednesday was education, as he rolled out a detailed, $2 billion-a-year plan to raise teacher pay above the national average, get every student online and expand preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds.
Through campaign adviser Jake Rubenstein, McAuliffe later in the day made another promise: to refuse any campaign money from Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility and most prolific political donor.
Swearing off Dominion money has been a point of pride for many of the state’s Democrats in recent years, as the party has shifted leftward and has become less accommodating to the utility giant. But the pledge was new for McAuliffe, who has been socially liberal but friendly to business.
With that promise, McAuliffe gives a nod to the party’s leftward shift without abandoning his “pragmatic, centrist” approach to business matters, said Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. But he will have to find a way to appeal to Democrats who’d like to see a new face.
“We’ll hear people say it’s time to move forward into the future, and this country has never elected a Black woman governor,” she said. “Virginia actually had the first [elected] Black governor ever, and then it could have the first Black woman.”
Three others are seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, including a Black man, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and two Black women, Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (Prince William) and state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond). The General Assembly’s lone socialist, Del. Lee J. Carter (Manassas), who like McAuliffe is White, filed paperwork this week allowing him to raise money for a gubernatorial bid, but he has not formally joined the race.
On the Republican side, there are two declared candidates: Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), the former speaker of the House of Delegates, and state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield), who said Saturday she will run as an independent after the state GOP voted to choose its nominee at a convention instead of in a statewide primary.
Four other Republicans are actively exploring bids: outgoing Rep. Denver Riggleman; Northern Virginia businessman Pete Snyder; former Carlyle Group co-chief executive Glenn Youngkin and state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta). Charles “Bill” Carrico, a retired state trooper and former state senator from Grayson County, in the state’s far southwest, had been mulling a bid but said Wednesday he would not run, and he endorsed Cox.
McAuliffe’s attempt to reclaim the Executive Mansion is unusual in Virginia, whose governors are constitutionally banned from serving back-to-back terms. Only one Virginia governor has held the office for two terms since the Civil War: Mills Godwin, who served from 1966 to 1970 as a Democrat and from 1974 to 1978 as a Republican.
McAuliffe left office in January 2018 with his eye on the White House. But in April 2019, he opted against entering the crowded Democratic presidential primary. He has been publicly inching toward a run for governor ever since.
While no surprise, his announcement unleashed a flood of well-wishes from supporters and attacks from critics on the local and national level. Dave Rexrode, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, weighed in with especially sharp rhetoric, calling McAuliffe “the typically slick politician that is so often negatively depicted in movies and sitcoms . . . a Clinton lackey and partisan hack whose past is marred with shady business deals.”
Before his governorship, McAuliffe was best known nationally as a colorful, record-breaking Democratic fundraiser for his best friends, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
He wrestled a 280-pound alligator in a 1980 fundraising stunt and made the title of his autobiography an exclamation: “What a Party!” He had also made a fortune in a sometimes controversial business career that tapped into his vast political connections.
But his four years in Richmond were tame compared not just to his prior identity as the life of the Democratic Party, but also to the governors who came before and after, Taylor said.
McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Robert F. McDonnell, was embroiled in a scandal over $165,000 in luxury gifts and loans from a businessman seeking the state’s help promoting his tobacco-based dietary supplement. His successor, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), nearly resigned after a racist photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook but has since largely recovered.
“He’s . . . been the least controversial governor of the last decade,” said Taylor, which will help McAuliffe position himself as “a steady hand at a time of economic upheaval.”
McAuliffe made his announcement Wednesday surrounded by some of the state’s key Black political leaders, who are serving as three campaign co-chairs: state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), House Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.
Lucas was the most effusive, praising McAuliffe in triplicate for his “Tested leadership! Tested leadership! Tested leadership!”
Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University political scientist, called McAuliffe the likely front-runner, given his name recognition and experience as a former governor, as well as his legendary fundraising prowess. And McAuliffe was greeted like one — which is to say, the rest of the field pounced.
Cox called McAuliffe’s bid “a consolation prize for a failed national politician,” referring to the Democrat’s scotched presidential run. Chase declared Virginians were “not ready for a rerun.”
Among Democrats, Carroll Foy threw the hardest punch, saying she respects McAuliffe for the work he’s done but thinks he’s “emblematic of the status quo that has simply left too many people behind.” McClellan and Fairfax issued statements about representing Virginia’s “future,” a gentle dig suggesting McAuliffe represents its past.
Kidd said McAuliffe’s greatest hurdle is “the time, the moment in history.”
“This is the moment of Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, women. And McAuliffe is a middle-aged-plus White guy,” he said, referring to the racial reckoning after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody in May. “I think that’s his challenge.”
But Kidd also said McAuliffe has credibility on many of the issues raised by the moment, noting his move to restore voting rights to 173,000 ex-felons: “I think he understood maybe in some ways the coming of the moment.”
On Wednesday, McAuliffe’s message was explicitly forward-looking — an attempt to dispel the notion that the former governor would take Virginia back to the time he held the office, from 2014 to 2018.
“This pandemic is a turning point in our lives, and our goal can’t be just to go back to where we were before,” he said. “We need to think big and act bold to take Virginia to the next level. And the one thing that has the opportunity to lift up all Virginians is education.”