RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats have plowed vast sums of campaign cash into staff and consultants under Gov. Terry McAuliffe, well ahead of crucial state Senate elections this fall and the presidential contest of 2016.
The massive and early surge in spending appears to be part of an effort by the ambitious, term-limited governor to gain an advantage on Republicans in back-to-back elections critical to his legacy and to the political fortunes of a dear friend: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
McAuliffe’s political action committee and the Democratic Party of Virginia have shelled out $1.8 million for staff and consultants between January 2014, when he took office, and last March 31, the most recent fundraising reporting period.
That is far more than is typical for a Virginia governor at this point in his tenure — nearly three and four times what his two immediate predecessors spent over their first 15 months in office.
Much of the staff and consulting work has been aimed at beefing up data and analytics tools that will help Democrats better identify, register and persuade voters to choose Democratic candidates in 2015, 2016 and beyond, said Brian Zuzenak, executive director of McAuliffe’s Common Good VA PAC.
“We’ve been very clear from the get-go that the governor is going to be very aggressive in the Democratic Party and for Democratic candidates,” Zuzenak said. “I think given the fact that he raised and spent more in his campaign, it’s not really a shock that he’s going to raise and spend more.”
Making those investments early will arm campaigns with voter ID, registration and other data when it is most valuable, he added.
“Making data investments late is not very helpful,” Zuzenak said. “I think the governor did this in ’13, where they spent good chunks on the front end. . . . It’s not like we’re re-inventing the wheel over here. We’re taking a lot of what worked in the governor’s race and implementing it long-term for Democrats in Virginia.”
The spending comes ahead of fall legislative races that will determine control of the state Senate and, likely with it, McAuliffe’s odds for getting his priorities through a General Assembly under GOP control. In 2016, the crucial swing state he presides over as governor could help decide whether Clinton wins the White House.
Helping Democrats take the Senate and helping the former secretary of state win the presidency are not entirely distinct missions, and spending by the PAC and party reflects how closely they are intertwined. A handful of staff and consultants to the PAC and party recently moved onto prominent roles in Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Payments to those individuals represent only a tiny fraction of the soaring expenses, although the total swells to more than $400,000 if fees paid to consulting firms now working for Clinton’s campaign are included.
In the itinerant world of political work, staff and consultants often float from one marquee race (Virginia governorship, 2013) to the next (presidential, 2016). Some Republicans suggest something else has been afoot — that McAuliffe, who was chairman of Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential campaign, has been “parking” political staffers until Clinton officially jumped into the race in April.
“From the Republican standpoint, it comes as no surprise: The welfare state even extends to political consultants within the Democratic Party,” said Chris LaCivita, a Republican political operative and senior adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “They are clearly parking people. They are in a holding pattern in between jobs . . . [until ] they go to work for Hillary Clinton.”
Zuzenak, who works so closely with the state party that it picks up half his salary, dismissed that notion. He said the PAC and party simply lost some skilled political hands to the lure of the presidential contest.
A few Democrats have privately shared concerns about how the $1.8 million has been spent, particularly since McAuliffe has not yet lived up to expectations as a rainmaker for state political coffers.
“I’d be curious what we’re getting for that,” said one Democratic lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending the governor.
McAuliffe came to the governor’s mansion with a background as a record-smashing fundraiser for Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton. The former Democratic National Committee chairman was widely expected to be a money-making machine for Virginia Democrats.
Yet at least so far, McAuliffe’s PAC fundraising has been about the same as that of his immediate predecessor, former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R). McAuliffe’s PAC raised $3.2 million between January 2014 and March 2015, while McDonnell’s brought in nearly $3.1 million by March 2011.
Given that spending has soared under comparable fundraising, Virginia Democrats are far less flush than Republicans were at the same point four years ago — a critical stage in the election cycle with the Senate up for grabs in November. Democrats had $350,000 in combined party and PAC cash as of March 31, compared with the GOP’s $1.95 million in March 2011.
Zuzenak said the spending will pay off by helping Democrats better target voters.
“We are interested in using all the new data and analytics tools in every way possible to help Democrats get elected,” he said.
He also said a good chunk of the outlays settled debts racked up in 2013, when elections went into overtime with a recount and special elections. The party owed about $600,000, leaders said last year.
The $1.8 million staff and consulting tab under McAuliffe easily eclipses what the previous two governors spent over the equivalent stretch: $464,000 under McDonnell; $642,000 under Timothy M. Kaine (D).
Much of the consulting work went to high-powered Democratic firms that, almost by definition, have ties to the Clintons. They include:
●BlueLabs, whose co-founder, Elan Kriegel, is Clinton’s director of analytics, was paid nearly $88,000 in the summer of 2014.
●Bully Pulpit Interactive was paid $110,000 for e-mail, digital and online strategy. Its last paycheck landed in early March, just weeks before founder Andrew Bleeker’s name surfaced as a likely addition to Clinton’s digital team.
●Alexander Kellner, Bully Pulpit’s director, was paid $11,200 in December under the name KELLC, LLC. Zuzenak said Kellner ran the PAC’s e-mail operations.
●270 Strategies, founded by Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement, earned $6,000 from the party last June.
A handful of individual consultants and staff have left the state party and PAC for high-profile jobs with Clinton, including her campaign manager Robby Mook, Iowa caucus director Michael Halle and spokesman Joshua Schwerin.
Halle had a visible role as the PAC’s executive director, a job he left in January. But Mook, manager of McAuliffe’s campaign and a veteran of Clinton’s 2008 bid, was more under the radar as a consultant to the PAC, a part-time role that earned him nearly $98,000 between March 2014 and December 2014.
Mook did not respond to an e-mail message seeking comment. But Zuzenak said Mook played a valuable if lower-profile role as an adviser who helped McAuliffe map out his first year in office.
At least a month before his last payment from the PAC in December, Mook was jockeying to lead Clinton’s campaign, according to news reports at the time. Zuzenak said Mook’s role with the PAC was part-time, allowing him to juggle several clients at once.
“You don’t get Robby Mook for [$10,000] a month,” Zuzenak said. “He’s a brilliant guy, running a presidential campaign at 35.”
Schwerin, McAuliffe’s campaign spokesman in 2013 and the brother of Clinton speechwriter Dan Schwerin, had a short-term consulting role for the party.
After McAuliffe’s win, Schwerin went to work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He stayed until February 2015 and was named the Clinton campaign’s “rapid response spokesperson” when she announced her bid in April.
In the month between those two jobs, Schwerin was paid $6,000 as a consultant to the state party. But also in March, Schwerin appeared to be in the thick of Clinton’s struggle to respond to the first crisis of her then-nascent campaign.
As Clinton prepared to address a swelling controversy over her use of a private e-mail account for State Department messages, her personal office sent reporters a nine-page document laying out her side of the story. Deep in the “document properties” of the computer file, Schwerin was listed as its author, as CNN initially reported and The Washington Post later confirmed.
Schwerin said his work for the party took place in February. He was paid March 31.
“I can tell you there was no overlap,” Schwerin said in a brief interview. He declined to say what work he performed for the party, directing questions to officials there.
“He was working on a lot of press strategic planning,” Zuzenak said. “I would have loved for Schwerin to stay. . . . [But] the guy gets a call to go work for the presidential [campaign], I can’t argue with that.”