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McAuliffe needs his winning streak to hold as he seeks another term as Virginia governor

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe greets supporters on primary night in June in McLean. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

NORFOLK — Music and beer are stoking up the tailgaters outside Old Dominion University's football stadium. Terry McAuliffe, candidate for governor, plunges into the crowd like the king of the biggest fraternity on campus. There's no hand he won't shake, photo he won't snap, jig he won't dance — until suddenly, head looking left and arm flailing right, he smacks into a foam dinner plate.

The plate falls from the hand of a very large man, staining his white shirt. McAuliffe apologizes, cracks a joke, but the man just glares. For an uncomfortable few seconds, it seems like he might take a swing at the 64-year-old former governor.

Then, his face flushed and angry-looking, the man says, “I’m gonna vote for you anyway,” and disappears into the crowd.

Terence Richard McAuliffe, Democrat, needs his luck to hold this year as he barnstorms around Virginia seeking another term as governor. He’s had a great run since his first, unsuccessful bid in 2009 — winning the Executive Mansion in 2013 and helping his party ever since to a historic sweep of elections around Virginia.

This year is a test of whether it all can last, of whether McAuliffe had a hand in permanently changing Virginia’s political complexion or just whipped up a blue blush in reaction to an unpopular Donald Trump in the White House.

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With Trump out of office, it’s not clear that the assets that made McAuliffe so successful in the past are enough this time around. His biggest superpower — the ability to raise money — has met its match in Republican Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy opponent who can reach into his own pocket and pull out essentially infinite cash.

McAuliffe’s long-cultivated identity as a business-friendly Democrat doesn’t jibe so well with a party pulling to the left. He’s an older White man in an era when women and people of color are driving much of the party’s energy.

But McAuliffe has changed, too, since his days of being Bill Clinton’s sidekick and national fundraiser extraordinaire. Now, McAuliffe has a record from his four years as governor, when he surprised even himself with how much he enjoyed working the levers of government.

And though he’s attempting a comeback, McAuliffe never really went away. He spent the past four years campaigning nonstop to get Democrats elected in Virginia and around the country — partly as he flirted with running for president. As a result, his vaunted Rolodex is more packed than ever with people who owe Terry a favor — or at least will take his call.

McAuliffe is burning up the phone lines now as Democrats in Washington struggle to get anything done. Inaction on infrastructure spending, the stalemate over the debt limit, President Biden’s handling of Afghanistan — all have dragged down public opinion about Democrats and are weighing on McAuliffe’s standing in Virginia polls, which show a very tight race.

One recent morning during another campaign swing through Hampton Roads, McAuliffe has stopped to grab coffee in a hotel restaurant when his cellphone rings. The screen shows the caller’s name: Abigail Spanberger, Democratic congresswoman from Virginia’s 7th District.

McAuliffe hesitates — he’s on a tight schedule, and the situation in Washington is looking grim. “I’ll have to take that later,” he finally says, declining the call. “That’s an hour-long conversation right there.”

A familiar face

McAuliffe, once seen as a dilettante, can now legitimately claim to be one of the most experienced candidates ever to run for Virginia governor. Because the state constitution prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms, they almost all have been one-and-done. Mills Godwin is the only person since at least the Civil War who managed to serve twice: in 1966 as a Democrat and in 1974 as a Republican.

In any other state, McAuliffe would simply have run for reelection in 2017 as his first term was ending. (“Of course!” he says, when asked.) Now Youngkin likes to paint McAuliffe as a washed-up retread.

Experience, though, gives McAuliffe a couple of advantages. He has intimate knowledge of state government, still routinely checking in with officials for updates.

And McAuliffe doesn’t have to spend a lot of time introducing himself to Virginians. For good or ill, many voters — like the ODU man with a fresh stain on his shirt — know at least something about “the Macker.”

He was born in Syracuse, N.Y., to an Irish Catholic family of hardcore Democrats. He started his first business at 14, sealing driveways around the neighborhood, and got elected high school class president on a promise of keg parties. At Catholic University, McAuliffe began working for members of Congress and soon discovered a talent for fundraising, famously wrestling an alligator to get a donation for Jimmy Carter.

In the 1980s, he earned a law degree at Georgetown and married Dorothy Swann, the daughter of a prominent Florida Democratic donor. McAuliffe built a dual career as a political fixer and business entrepreneur. He made a fortune by investing in the telecom company Global Crossing, which collapsed in the early 2000s.

And McAuliffe famously befriended Bill and Hillary Clinton, becoming a top fundraiser and confidant and personally guaranteeing the loan on their New York home after they left the White House. The connection helped him become chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the early 2000s.

But by 2009, McAuliffe got the bug to run for office himself in his adopted home state of Virginia. He didn’t win the Democratic nomination for governor but traveled the state extensively, building connections as he had once done on the national stage.

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In the wake of that loss, McAuliffe threw himself into an ill-fated electric car business called GreenTech. The venture involved Hillary Clinton’s brother, Chinese investors and an obscure kind of foreign-worker visa, and it failed in grand fashion. The demise eventually provoked a lawsuit and federal investigation, but that was after McAuliffe exited the company in 2012.

McAuliffe returned to Virginia politics in 2013 to run for governor against hyper-conservative Ken Cuccinelli. His narrow victory gave him four years with a Republican legislature. McAuliffe likes to boast about the record number of vetoes he issued in his term — 120 — to make the point that he thwarted Republican efforts on issues such as tightening abortion restrictions or loosening gun laws.

Despite the partisan conflict, even Republican lawmakers used to praise McAuliffe for his tireless economic development efforts, which involved more travel to woo companies than any other Virginia governor.

And despite his earlier image as a rowdy politico, McAuliffe won plaudits for being a conscientious and talented manager.

“He ran the government well,” said Aubrey Layne, a Republican who served as secretary of transportation under McAuliffe and went on to serve as finance secretary under Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

Layne credited McAuliffe with stocking state agencies with good managers, delegating where appropriate and holding people accountable.

“It was more of a business approach in the way he interacted with me versus a more political approach,” Layne said. He noted that McAuliffe undertook a bipartisan effort with the General Assembly to create a new funding system for transportation projects called Smart Scale, which awards points based on need.

As the system was being put in place, McAuliffe held off on allocating transportation funds for an entire year — forgoing a chance to win political points around the state. “I can’t think of many other people who would’ve [done that],” Layne said. “This label that he’s just all politics — I didn’t see it.”

He did see McAuliffe’s wrath, though, which is the flip side of his boisterous personality. One year, Layne released information about an unpopular new tolling program for I-66 just a few weeks before Election Day. He got a call from the governor. “I could hear him screaming through the phone at me,” Layne recalled with a laugh.

“He was right, I could have delayed it a few weeks,” he said. But after that one dressing down, McAuliffe never mentioned it again.

By the end of his term, McAuliffe claimed credit for creating some 200,000 jobs and boosting education funding to record amounts. But two major goals had eluded him: He failed to get Republicans to go along with expanding Medicaid, and though he says he wrote the proposal for Amazon’s HQ2 headquarters in Arlington, his term ended before the company made its decision.

His successor — Northam, who had been McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor — landed both.

McAuliffe reveled in being governor, using his own money to by a beer dispenser for the Executive Mansion, taking dinner guests on late-night tours through the Capitol and working on deals until just hours before Northam was sworn in.

“We put out an economic development press release the morning of his last day,” former commerce secretary Todd Haymore said.

Stepping up

McAuliffe already had another gig lined up. At the urging of President Barack Obama, McAuliffe joined Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder in forming the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. The group is dedicated to helping Democrats win state and local elections around the country, with an eye toward influencing redistricting maps after the 2020 Census — the kind of effort Republicans perfected at least a decade earlier.

At one of the organization’s first big outreach meetings, Holder said in an interview, the three leaders addressed a Hollywood crowd at a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles. “I thought I did an okay job,” he said, and Pelosi spoke broadly about the impact of gerrymandering on the House of Representatives.

But McAuliffe, he said, did something different. “His point was, in a person’s daily life — that’s where the most impact [of redistricting] occurs,” Holder said. McAuliffe listed examples from his time as governor of issues that the Republican-controlled legislature had dictated, such as refusing to expand Medicaid.

“I remember sitting there and realizing, that’s it. That’s our argument, that’s our pitch, the essence of what it is we’re talking about here,” he said.

That combination of governing experience with campaign savvy marked a new McAuliffe, and powered his flirtation with running for president. Holder credited him with making a difference — traveling to more than 20 states in 2018 and helping Democrats flip seven governorships from red to blue.

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But McAuliffe put aside his presidential aspirations early in 2019. He met with Joe Biden, then former vice president, that January for more than three hours, and wound up pledging support for his old friend for the Democratic nomination. By the next month, circumstances quickly drew McAuliffe back toward Richmond.

The night of Feb. 1 of that year, a conservative website posted a photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page depicting one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam initially took responsibility for the photo.

McAuliffe telephoned Northam that night, and while he won’t discuss their conversation, he publicly called for Northam’s resignation. He said recently that the situation made him worried that the Democratic agenda in Virginia was at risk.

When Northam wound up disavowing knowledge of the photo and resolving to stay in office, state Democratic leaders traveled to McLean to speak with McAuliffe. The entire General Assembly was up for election that fall and Democrats were hoping to take majority control from Republicans. With Northam politically hobbled, McAuliffe agreed to jump in and help with campaigning and fundraising in his place.

Northam made a remarkable political recovery, and by the end of the year was back on the trail supporting candidates. But McAuliffe campaigned all summer like an incumbent — 141 events in 60 days, he says. Democrats won their majorities.

“That was a difficult time,” Northam said in an interview, crediting McAuliffe with stepping up. “It was an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Northam has endorsed McAuliffe, and the two remain close — both campaigning as though the past eight years have been a dual Northam/McAuliffe administration.

The year of crisis pushed McAuliffe, who had been working as a commentator on CNN, toward a comeback in state politics. He brushes off questions about whether he still harbors presidential ambitions, and has pledged to serve a full term as governor if elected.

In 2019, McAuliffe signed on with the law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth as an adviser on cybersecurity issues. The firm is one of the biggest in Virginia and most powerful in Richmond. In campaign filings this year, McAuliffe reported income of “more than $250,000” for cybersecurity-related work.

Through 2020, he campaigned around Virginia for Biden, helping deliver a 10-point victory for the Democrat.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who had gotten his start in politics as a young aide to McAuliffe, said that as crises mounted last year — the pandemic, the economic freeze, the social justice protests — he often turned to McAuliffe for advice. He was losing sleep, he said, and wrestling with whether to remove the city’s Confederate monuments, when McAuliffe gave him a push.

“He was there to say, at the end of the day, you want to do the right thing,” Stoney said. “If it feels right in your heart, then do it.” He took them down.

Competing demands

The issue of public monuments is among many that changed dramatically during the years after McAuliffe left office. He had said early in his term that he did not favor removing Confederate statues, but won praise for his condemnation of white supremacists after Charlottesville’s violent Unite the Right rally in 2017. Like many other politicians, McAuliffe now supports removal.

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One of the accomplishments he cites most is his effort to restore the voting rights of thousands of Virginians who were convicted and served sentences for felonies — a disproportionate number of whom are Black. McAuliffe’s action got him sued by Virginia Republicans, who said he was overstepping his authority, but it has generated strong feelings among many Black voters.

On a recent Sunday morning swing through Black churches in Hampton Roads, McAuliffe mentioned rights restoration to thunderous applause at every stop. But at least one minister — the Rev. Geoffrey V. Guns at Second Calvary Baptist in Norfolk — said in an interview that that issue isn’t enough.

Guns said he has led door-knocking campaigns to get his community vaccinated, pushed people to vote and hosted Democratic politicians in church. But he hasn’t yet seen the thing he really wants in return: money to fix dilapidated schools.

“I think they’re taking us for granted,” he said, before going up on stage and asking McAuliffe, point-blank, if he’d commit to renovating local schools. When the candidate said yes, Guns turned to his congregation. “You heard what he said,” Guns said, then promised to “hold these politicians to account.”

The Democratic Party’s recent success in Virginia means McAuliffe faces a host of competing demands from constituents who want their due. He has to balance the newly assertive liberal wing of the party with the interests of more-moderate suburbanites who voted blue during the Trump years.

His campaign once suggested, for instance, that McAuliffe would favor ending qualified immunity for police, which protects officers against lawsuits in the line of duty. Many liberal Democrats want the change as a way to hold law enforcement accountable, but with Republicans hammering a tough-on-crime message in crucial suburban swing districts, McAuliffe now says he is against ending qualified immunity.

And McAuliffe has been hard to pin down on the question of Virginia’s right-to-work law, which forbids workplaces from requiring union membership as a condition of employment. The policy has tended to suppress organized labor in the state, and unions — among McAuliffe’s biggest donors — would like to see it repealed.

McAuliffe says he would sign a repeal into law, but that he knows the General Assembly would never pass one. That fuzzy answer has alarmed some in the business community.

“There is no economic development director in the state of Virginia that would give up right-to-work as a tool to attract business,” said Bruce Thompson, a prominent hotel developer in Virginia Beach.

Thompson has given to both major political parties over the years, and he was McAuliffe’s Hampton Roads finance chairman in 2013. But this year, Thompson is finance chair for Youngkin.

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The issues are different now, he said. Last time McAuliffe ran, Thompson agreed that the state should expand Medicaid access, and he praised McAuliffe’s economic development efforts. This time, he thinks the Democratic legislature needs to be reined in.

“It’s an odd place to be in,” Thompson said, “but we’re in entirely different times.”

So different that some Democrats, earlier this year, were hoping for a new-generation nominee to carry the party’s banner. The primary election slate featured five candidates in total, three of whom are Black: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond) and former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (Prince William).

But McAuliffe, with his vast funding and broad ties within the party, won the nomination in every jurisdiction in the state — an unprecedented showing.

“Right after the primary, there was a period of time where people, especially women . . . were harboring an emotion about how the primary played out,” said Del. Lashrecse D. Aird (D-Petersburg), a vocal member of the legislature’s Black Caucus who did not endorse during the primary but believes McAuliffe is running a good campaign.

Now, with control of Richmond at stake, with a fresh-faced Republican charming the suburbs and spending freely, Democrats need to “let go of whatever emotions they were feeling,” Aird said. They need “to get behind . . . the statewide ticket, and with Terry.”