The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From alligator wrestler to ex-governor: McAuliffe gets a reboot as ‘Terry 2.0’

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe won the Democratic nomination for governor in the June 8 primary. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

RICHMOND — The first two times Terry McAuliffe ran for governor of Virginia, he was known as the flamboyant national Democratic Party chairman and Clinton pal who'd wrestled an alligator and made a personal fortune at the swampy intersection of business and politics.

This time around, he’s His Excellency, the 72nd governor of Virginia.

McAuliffe failed to secure the Democratic nomination for governor in 2009 and barely eked out a win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli to take the Executive Mansion four years later. But after snagging a whopping 62 percent of the vote Tuesday in a five-way primary, McAuliffe is running to become the state’s 74th chief executive as a popular former governor, someone who might have sailed to reelection in 2017 had the state constitution not banned back-to-back terms.

Republicans, desperate to win back the governorship after a dozen years, could face a tougher time if McAuliffe, the ex-governor, overshadows “The Macker.”

“He’s not Terry McAuliffe, the Clinton fundraiser anymore — he’s Terry McAuliffe, the former governor,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “He has tangible things to point to.”

Strap in, Virginia — the 2021 governor’s race is suddenly at full speed

Some Republicans believe McAuliffe’s colorful, pre-gubernatorial past will still be relevant as voters in November choose between him and Republican Glenn Youngkin, the former Carlyle Group executive who won the GOP nomination in a convention last month.

“Glenn is running against Bill Clinton’s longtime enabler, Terry McAuliffe,” former president Donald Trump wrote in his endorsement of Youngkin. “Terry McAuliffe was the Clintons’ bagman in more ways than one, from the cover-ups to the get-rich-quick schemes, and his deals with Communist China look suspicious.”

Political newcomer with the means to self-fund to enter race for Virginia governor

McAuliffe said he is proudly running on his record as governor and his plans for the future, and he thinks that’s what voters are interested in.

“People know what I did for four years as governor,” he said in an interview Friday. “What they do know is I got tens of thousands of kids pre-K, got thousands of pregnant low-income women dental care. They know about the jobs, the biggest investment in education.”

He said Virginians have gotten to know him — and he them — since he first got active in state-level politics in 2009.

“I’ve spent 12 years going to every nook and cranny of Virginia,” said McAuliffe, who on Tuesday won all 133 Virginia cities and counties. “I’m not going to say I know all 8.5 million [Virginians], but I’ve done my darnedest.”

Youngkin strategist Jeff Roe said he was less inclined to revisit old controversies than to go after McAuliffe’s record as governor and his party’s more recent leftward lurch.

“I like Terry 2.0 because he owns the whole party that’s doing all this clown-town stuff,” Roe said, referring to what he portrays as culture warriors on the left pushing to “defund” police, implement “critical race theory” in schools, boost labor unions and raise taxes. “He’s a combination of Boss Tweed and Tom Pendergast. He’s a Boss Terry. . . . He’s been a political broker his whole life, and he owns this radical nature of his party.”

At the same time, Roe said, “Of course, there’s going to be a contrast and examination of both candidates’ records. . . . Nothing’s off the table.”

Virginia governor’s race will test GOP identity, Democratic leadership before midterms

McAuliffe first made a name for himself as a Democratic fundraiser, starting in his early 20s, when he famously wrestled a 280-pound, 8-foot alligator for a $15,000 donation for President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 reelection bid. (The alligator lost, but so did Carter.)

As chairman of Hillary Clinton’s failing presidential primary campaign in 2008, McAuliffe famously sported a Hawaiian shirt and brandished a bottle of Bacardi on national TV in an appearance after the Puerto Rico primary.

Some of his efforts drew controversy, as when his suggestion in the 1990s that then-President Bill Clinton spend more time with donors morphed — without McAuliffe’s knowledge, he’s always said — into a plan to reward them with overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Several of his business dealings have been highly controversial, including GreenTech Automotive, an electric car company that involved one of Hillary Clinton’s brothers and raised money from Chinese investors through a program allowing them to obtain special visas.

“Just because he won a close election eight years ago doesn’t absolve him from . . . creating a false electric car company that failed and, you know, sold the Chinese — with the Clintons — HB-5 visas,” said Chris LaCivita, who was Cuccinelli’s consultant in 2013 and is not involved in the current race.

McAuliffe’s GreenTech car company launched with high hopes, but reality dogs campaign

McAuliffe resigned from GreenTech during the governor’s race in late 2012 and distanced himself from the struggling firm amid questions about its production claims and financing. It filed for bankruptcy in February 2018.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said voters will view McAuliffe’s pre-gubernatorial past as “ancient history.”

“A lot of this is going to be ineffective because if there are any swing votes out there — and there sure aren’t many of them — they’re going to say, ‘I’ve heard about this before,’ ” he said. “Or, ‘That again? Give it a rest.’ ”

During the 2013 race, the conservative group Citizens United produced a 29-minute documentary titled “Fast Terry” on GreenTech and another of his troubled business ventures, Franklin Pellets.

“Citizens United will obviously dust off ‘Fast Terry’ and make sure Virginians understand it,” said David Bossie, president of Citizens United and Trump’s 2016 deputy campaign manager.

But even Bossie said Republicans will have better luck playing up McAuliffe’s ties to the current White House than to the Clintons.

“He’s going to have to answer for the Biden inflation, the Biden economic disaster that seems to be unfolding, Biden’s critical race theory, Biden’s radical socialist agenda,” he said. “And he’s running against a newcomer, a fresh face.”

McAuliffe has always embraced his freewheeling image, most notably in his 2007 memoir, “What A Party! My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and Other Wild Animals.”

“Now let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to raise money for a governor,” McAuliffe says in the audio version of the book, which Cuccinelli turned into a campaign ad. “They have all kinds of business to hand out — road contracts, construction jobs, you name it.”

Ads target McAuliffe memoir

Yet McAuliffe had no major scandals over his four-year term — all the more notable because both his seemingly strait-laced predecessor and successor did. (Republican Robert F. McDonnell was engulfed by a gifts scandal, and Democrat Ralph Northam by one involving blackface.)

“When he was elected, just as many Democrats as Republicans groaned. I heard them,” Sabato said. “While the Democrats were thrilled that they beat Cuccinelli, they didn’t view McAuliffe as having been properly prepared to be governor. . . . Well, the surprise was, he did a good job as governor. The polls certainly showed that.”

Sabato counts himself among the initial doubters.

“I wasn’t crazy about him, either,” he said. “I didn’t think he was a person of the right temperament to be governor. Well, I was wrong. You know why? Because I think he was very pleased to have the opportunity to get something done in public office and leave the flamboyant party fundraiser role behind.”

In 2009, one of McAuliffe’s primary opponents was former delegate Brian Moran, who ridiculed him as “the booking agent of the Lincoln Bedroom.” Moran went on, however, to serve as McAuliffe’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, a position he also holds in Northam’s administration.

“Any of the more colorful stories of Terry McAuliffe will be overcome or overshadowed by his accomplishments as governor of Virginia,” Moran said. “It’s less and less relevant, and his stewardship of the commonwealth is far more relevant and more recent.”

McAuliffe touts achievements including creating 200,000 jobs, attracting $20 million in capital investment and boosting personal incomes across the state. Unemployment was at 3.3 percent statewide when he left office, and many rural localities saw nearly 50 percent decreases in unemployment numbers. He also restored voting rights to 173,000 ex-felons who had completed their sentences.

“He has a four-year record, and a four-year record that people like,” said Steve Elmendorf, a longtime Democratic strategist. “That’s the huge difference from the last race.”

Some of McAuliffe’s sharpest critics disagree.

“The guy is a complete huckster — he always has been,” Cuccinelli said in an interview Friday. He said McAuliffe’s record does not compare to that of the one governor since the Civil War who was elected to a second term, Mills Godwin.

“Godwin started the community college system,” Cuccinelli said. “What did Terry do? He gave murderers voting rights.”

Phil Cox, a Republican strategist, said Youngkin’s campaign would be smart not to follow Cuccinelli’s playbook.

“GreenTech will be re-litigated, I’m sure, again, but we used it in ’13, and it obviously didn’t work,” said Cox, who ran McDonnell’s 2009 campaign, the last statewide race the party has won in Virginia. “It’s going to be less about those kind of other character issues than it is about the substance of the record. Because there is plenty to shoot at.”

While McAuliffe proudly runs on his record, Cox said Republicans can tie him to current issues such as rising crime rates and a Democratic Party that more broadly “has not been overly supportive of law enforcement.”

Some longtime McAuliffe associates contend he was always more than his over-the-top persona. When he wasn’t wrangling gators, he was a senior adviser to Carter’s campaign. He was co-chairman of Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign and tapped by Al Gore to rescue a foundering 2000 Democratic National Convention. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005, he was credited with updating the party’s sorely outdated technology. From his DNC perch, he also gave a record $5 million toward Democrat Tim Kaine’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign.

“He helped us transform the party,” said Minyon Moore, who was the DNC’s chief executive during McAuliffe’s chairmanship, adding that he had a knack for solving complex problems. “And he does it in a way that doesn’t make us feel, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be so heavy.’ He makes you want to solve these problems with him.”

“You don’t become a bank president at 30 years old without some business acumen,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, referring to his time as chairman of Federal City National Bank. “He has a head for facts and figures. He often likes to say, ‘I like to have fun with this, too,’ but he’s also serious about the job of governor and helping Virginians.”

Todd Haymore, who was run ragged on McAuliffe-led trade missions as his commerce secretary, said the ex-governor’s outsize personality was matched by his in-the-weeds pursuit of job creation.

“Is he full of energy, boisterous? Can he be the life of the party, the center of attention in the room? Yeah, all that’s true,” Haymore said. “But I’m telling you, when it comes to getting things done, the leadership, the drive, the passion to get results, that’s what matters. I think he proved that. I think he’s in a position, after getting 62 percent of the primary vote, to prove it again.”