McAuliffe is playing a major role in Virginia’s pivotal General Assembly election — in a hands-on way that’s unusual for an ex-governor. He stepped up early this year when his successor and fellow Democrat, Gov. Ralph Northam, seemed sidelined by a blackface scandal.
But McAuliffe’s barnstorming — logging 122 campaign appearances for Virginia Democrats in cities, suburbs and rural districts as of Wednesday — is fueling speculation that he will run for governor again in 2021. He did not have that option when his term ended in January 2018 because Virginia prohibits governors from serving back-to-back terms. But the state puts no limit on nonconsecutive terms.
As things have turned out, Northam recovered from scandal better than anticipated. His response to a May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach — calling a special session on gun control that Republicans swiftly shut down — teed up Democrats’ most compelling argument for flipping the General Assembly blue. Though Northam’s fundraising has lagged, he’s on track to donate $1.5 million to Democrats by Election Day and is back on the stump for candidates.
Yet as Northam resurfaced, McAuliffe did not pull back, not with all 140 legislative seats on the ballot and Democrats within reach of winning control of the General Assembly.
“When he’s in, he’s all in. . . . Have you ever seen him dial back anything in his life?” said state Democratic Party chairwoman Susan Swecker. “He’s been an adviser. He’s been a strategist. He’s been cheerleader in chief. He’s made calls. He’s done outreach. He just said, ‘Put me to work,’ and I did.”
So just hours before Virginia’s 73rd governor headlined a canvass launch for Bynum-Coleman in Chesterfield County, No. 72 paraded with her through Petersburg.
“It’s incredible to have them,” said Bynum-Coleman, who is trying to topple House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) in a district that was redrawn under court order to remedy racial gerrymandering and that now leans Democratic.
Northam welcomes McAuliffe’s help, said Mark Bergman, who heads the current governor’s political action committee. “The more the merrier,” he said.
While McAuliffe battled with Republican legislative leaders as governor — he vetoed a record 120 bills — he left office with low unemployment, positive approval ratings and affection from Democrats.
“I hope you run in ’21,” Imam Sherif Abdalla Shehata, of the Islamic Center of Stafford, told McAuliffe after his first stop last weekend, a breakfast with faith leaders and four legislative candidates at Shiloh Baptist Church in Fredericksburg.
McAuliffe, 62, does not rule it out. He tells the imam and everyone else who asks that he’s got to get through 2019 before thinking about 2021. The notion of a comeback thrills supporters such as state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), a veteran Black Caucus member.
“I’ve worked with eight governors, and this is my favorite,” Lucas declared at a recent event for freshman Del. Kelly K. Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach) at Mermaid Winery in Norfolk.
But some legislators are cool to the idea. Nationally and in Virginia, the party has moved leftward since McAuliffe left office, with many Virginia Democrats swearing off corporate contributions, including those from Dominion Energy, the state’s most prolific corporate donor. McAuliffe, though socially liberal, was friendly toward business.
Some Democrats also recoil at the potential optics: a white man seeking a return to the governor’s mansion at a time when at least four black Democrats — two of them women — are publicly mulling runs of their own.
“In this moment when we’re looking to elevate black people and women, it’s a little strange to have the white guy come back and say, ‘No, no, no. I know what’s best,’ ” said one Democratic legislator who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending McAuliffe.
McAuliffe says his work for Democrats this year is unrelated to any aspirations for a second term. It has everything to do with his hopes for his first. Republicans who controlled both chambers all four years stymied McAuliffe on Medicaid expansion, gun control and other priorities. Except for his rigorous pursuit of economic development deals, which both parties cheered, McAuliffe had to resort to executive orders to pull off his biggest accomplishments, including restoring voting rights to 173,000 felons.
“It’s personal to me,” he said at the breakfast in Fredericksburg. “When you’ve got a strong executive who wants to lean in on these issues, if you had a legislature who was willing to work with you, we could take Virginia to levels we have never seen before. That’s why I’m so passionate about these campaigns.”
McAuliffe left the governorship in January 2018 with his eye on the White House. He visited early primary states and publicly relished the idea of taking on President Trump, a onetime campaign donor.
But McAuliffe got out before he even got in, partly in deference to former vice president Joe Biden, a friend who occupies the same establishment lane. McAuliffe said in April that he wanted to devote his energies to helping Democrats in Virginia, where Northam and two other statewide Democrats were floundering.
In the space of an extraordinary week in February, Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) admitted to wearing blackface as young men, and two women accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) of sexually assaulting them in the early 2000s. Fairfax maintains the encounters were consensual. All three remained in office, but their ability to raise money and lead their party through a critical election cycle was in serious doubt.
Enter McAuliffe, who before his governorship was best known as the record-smashing fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton. His first move was to invite House and Senate Democratic leaders to his McLean home to start plotting a coordinated campaign. He offered to headline events. Within the first 48 hours, he had 42 on the calendar.
The next week, he hosted the outside groups that usually back Virginia Democrats in a big way, such as Planned Parenthood, union leaders and gun-control outfits. He tried to assure them that, scandals aside, Virginia remained a good bet.
McAuliffe still had money in his gubernatorial PAC, so he poured more than $500,000 into various party and caucus committees. He brought in many times that amount by headlining events that raised money directly into the coffers of the state party, the League of Conservation Voters and other allied Democratic groups.
He traveled to San Francisco twice, most recently in September, when he flew out in the morning, shoehorned a fundraising lunch, reception and dinner into that day, and came back on a redeye. He’s gone to New York on similar missions at least five times since May. He picked up the cost of those trips personally, not with PAC or party money.
Republicans call McAuliffe’s involvement a sign of weakness.
“Democrats were in a bad way with the self-inflicted wounds in the Executive Branch, so they had to call up their third-string quarterback, Hillary Clinton’s bag man,” Garren Shipley, spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), said in a text message.
Democrats say McAuliffe is part of a team effort that has included members of Congress, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, and a re-emerging Northam.
“We knew before February 1st this was going to be an all-hands-on-deck election, and that became even more evident after February 1st,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the House Black Caucus. “I’ve been thrilled at the fact that so many individuals have stepped up, and certainly Terry has been a very valuable player in supporting our efforts to win the majority in both chambers.”
There is no doubt that McAuliffe is the most frenetic campaigner of the bunch. He did five events on a recent Saturday, zipping from his McLean home to Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Norfolk, Williamsburg and Prince William County. That’s not counting a detour into the District to appear on CNN, where he was asked to comment on the 2020 elections but managed to weave in a reference to Virginia 2019.
All told, he was on the road from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., sustained only by granola bars, Gatorade and the blueberry protein shake he’d downed in his kitchen before dawn.
McAuliffe still travels in a black SUV just like when he was governor, though the license plate is 2 now instead of 1. There’s no longer a state trooper at the wheel. McAuliffe mostly drives himself, though as he barnstormed last weekend, an aide played chauffeur. When they stopped to fill up, His Excellency pumped the gas.
Even without the trappings of office, McAuliffe can draw attention. Before the parade kicked off in Petersburg, he climbed on a float to take pictures with a group of older African American women decked out in white.
“Don’t show that to Dorothy,” he joked, referring to the former first lady. Down the road, another older woman, another picture, same joke: “All right, don’t tell Dorothy about that.”
“You the man!” Roger Batts, 60, of Petersburg called out, summoning McAuliffe for a fist bump. “He’s done a lot for the state and a lot for people of color,” Batts said after McAuliffe had moved on.
At most events, McAuliffe gave a little talk summing up his accomplishments regarding jobs, teacher pay raises and other areas, and noted some of what he couldn’t get done because of a GOP legislature, such as tightening gun laws or boosting the minimum wage. He said restoring voting rights to felons — over which Republicans sued, twice — was his proudest moment.
On a crowded corner along the parade route, where McAuliffe led a cheer for Bynum-Coleman, two people told McAuliffe he had given them back the right to vote. It happened again at the winery in Norfolk. In tears, Zenus Rodgers, 42, of Portsmouth thanked him for restoring the rights she’d lost after felony convictions in her teens.
“It’s just a phenomenal feeling,” she said.
McAuliffe headed from the winery to the College of William & Mary, where dozens of Democratic volunteers were tailgating between a morning of door-knocking and the afternoon homecoming game against James Madison University.
“I’m a little hoarse,” McAuliffe said as he kicked off his pep talk, but his voice warmed up quickly. He lingered to win a cornhole challenge.
“I killed that kid,” McAuliffe said back inside the SUV. “He said, ‘I’m the cornhole champ at JMU.’ ”
From there, it was on to a house party for Democrat Ann Wheeler, who is running for chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. He used the time in the car to consult his party and caucus leaders on the latest poll numbers, which he scribbled on two index cards. He also phoned 28 field staffers, offering attaboys in the exhausting home stretch. His calls came with no notice, and McAuliffe relished the shock value.
“Hey, Sam. Terry McAuliffe, buddy. How are you?” he said at the start of one typical call.
Stunned silence usually followed, as the young staffers wondered whether it was a prank.
“Oh, my God, good,” one stammered.
“The kid’s gonna go throw up,” McAuliffe said after hanging up.
So it went with Clint, Isabella, Leslie, Hanna, Josh and others all around the state.
“All right,” McAuliffe signed off. “Kick some ass. I want you to bring this home.”