Former president Bill Clinton flew to Florida this spring as a favor to one of his best friends, headlining a fundraiser for Terry McAuliffe that brought in an easy $400,000 for his campaign for Virginia governor. But when the event’s host, trial lawyer John Morgan, pulled Clinton aside at his mansion that evening for a private chat, Morgan had another race in mind.
“I told him, ‘If and when Hillary decides to do it, let this be her first stop in Florida,’ ” Morgan said he told Clinton, referring to a possible 2016 presidential bid by the former secretary of state. Morgan said Clinton replied, “We appreciate it.”
Many Democrats see McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign as the ground floor of a would-be Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential run — with his Virginia operation serving as a farm team in a critical swing state and donors believing they can curry favor with her by helping McAuliffe.
But those taking this approach are doing so without Hillary Clinton’s direct blessing, and people close to her are trying to quash the notion, believing she could be damaged if her political strength is measured by the McAuliffe campaign.
“I can’t tell you how many people inside Hillary’s world are furious with that,” said one Clinton insider, who like some others interviewed for this article requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “It is not a trial run. . . . This is not a campaign-in-waiting.”
As former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell (D), a Clinton loyalist, put it: “If Hillary chooses to run, she doesn’t need any farm team.”
In an off year a long way from when Clinton would need to decide whether to make another run for president, 2013 figured to be a quiet time for the former first lady. But this year’s two major political races — for Virginia governor and for New York mayor — are both posing challenges for Clinton.
Anthony Weiner, whose mayoral campaign is ensnared in a sexting scandal, is married to Huma Abedin, a longtime Clinton aide and confidante. The further they sink into scandal, the more problematic Abedin’s connection to Clinton becomes.
The effort to distance McAuliffe from Clinton’s orbit was well underway even before last week’s revelation that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating GreenTech, the electric-car firm he co-founded. Also under investigation is Gulf Coast Funds Management, a company run by Hillary Clinton’s brother Anthony Rodham that processes visas for foreign investors in GreenTech.
For McAuliffe, his ties to the Clintons — for whom he has raised more than $400 million — are a double-edged sword. Those connections have helped McAuliffe raise far more money than his GOP opponent, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), but they also give Republicans an opening to remind voters of scandals involving McAuliffe during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Bill Clinton has appeared at a handful of fundraisers for McAuliffe, including the March event at Morgan’s mansion in the Orlando area, and is expected to do more events. The former president also made a personal donation of $100,000 to McAuliffe in March and could well appear in ads before November.
“President Clinton has and will continue to be very helpful, and Terry is grateful for that,” McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said.
But Hillary Clinton is still weighing how actively to support McAuliffe, her advisers said. Will she barnstorm the state with him or appear only at a private fundraiser? Will she appear in television spots, radio ads or robo-calls? Such public moves would immediately return Clinton to a partisan political environment — something she has sought to avoid.
An analysis of campaign finance records shows that 40 individuals who were bundlers for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign have given to McAuliffe’s 2013 bid, totaling more than $1.5 million for the Virginia hopeful.
Many of the same donors also gave to one or both of Barack Obama’s campaigns, making them not just Clinton loyalists. But several also have no history of giving to Virginia campaigns, suggesting that it is McAuliffe personally — and not the governor’s race in general — that drew them to give.
Ron Burkle, a former business partner and friend of Bill Clinton’s, had never donated to any non-federal candidate in Virginia before this year, when he gave McAuliffe $100,000. (In his book “What a Party!,” McAuliffe describes approaching Burkle for help raising money for the 2000 Democratic National Convention. “Ron, I need a million,” McAuliffe quotes himself saying. He got it.)
McAuliffe also has tapped into the Clintons’ staff network to help his campaign. Robby Mook, who ran Hillary Clinton’s successful 2008 primary campaigns in Indiana, Nevada and Ohio, is managing McAuliffe’s campaign.
Mook is among a handful of operatives in the running to direct a 2016 Clinton campaign. Bloomberg’s Albert R. Hunt recently wrote a column touting Mook with the headline “Road to White House May Start With Virginia Contest.”
Pollster Geoff Garin, a top strategist in Clinton’s 2008 campaign, is working for McAuliffe. And Patrick Hallahan, a former Clinton campaign aide, is a senior adviser on McAuliffe’s campaign team. (Last year, Hallahan married one of Clinton’s State Department aides, Natalie Jones, at McAuliffe’s McLean home.)
People close to the Clintons chalk up the farm-team chatter as “nonsense” and “silly.” They said that publicly linking the McAuliffe campaign to Hillary Clinton’s political future helps him recruit supporters.
“She’s this planet just a little off from the rest of us right now, and anything you can do to bring her in because she’s so white hot — everybody wants to bring her into their narrative,” a Clinton friend and adviser said.
Morgan added: “Terry’s Rolodex is their Rolodex, and their Rolodex is Terry’s Rolodex. He’s probably the closest person in the country to them.”
In Virginia, Republicans are highlighting McAuliffe’s aggressive fundraising practices on Bill Clinton’s behalf as well as questionable pardons that came at the end of his presidency. Republicans say McAuliffe’s Clinton-era behavior confirms his own worst caricature — an unethical pitchman who excels only at raising cash.
Even Bill Clinton has joked about that reputation. “Absolutely, I would buy a new car from Terry. But a used car? I am not so sure about a used car,” Clinton told the New York Times last year.
Democrats have spent much of this year’s campaign criticizing Cuccinelli for taking gifts from a wealthy donor, Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., in hopes of eroding voters’ views of the attorney general’s integrity.
Republicans have fired back forcefully, noting that in 1999, McAuliffe put up $1.35 million of his own money to help the Clintons secure a mortgage for their home in Chappaqua, N.Y. Republicans also point out that McAuliffe was partly responsible for some of the Clinton era’s most infamous fundraising practices.
McAuliffe wrote a memo to Clinton in 1994 suggesting that campaign supporters be given breakfast, lunch or coffee with the president. Clinton added a note suggesting they be given overnight stays at the White House, and the document soon became known as the “Lincoln Bedroom memo.”
Based on public lists, at least four people who slept in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton administration — including Burkle — have given to McAuliffe for his current campaign. (Another handful gave to his 2009 gubernatorial bid.)
Donors to his current campaign also include James H. Lake, who pleaded guilty in 1995 in an illegal campaign contribution scheme and was pardoned by Bill Clinton at the end of his term. McAuliffe confirmed at the time that Lake was a friend and that he had urged Clinton to grant the pardon.
“Remember,” Cuccinelli adviser Chris LaCivita recently wrote to reporters, “this is the same Terry McAuliffe who bragged about offering campaign contributors lunch with the President or a flight on Air Force One for a $50,000 donation, saying that he was a salesman and the product he was selling was the President.”