Former President Bill Clinton, left, chats with donors as he pays a visit… (Bill O'Leary/The Washington…)
As the pugnacious leader of the Democratic Party a decade ago, Terry McAuliffe was well known as a searing critic of the Republican Party. Now, as the Democratic nominee for governor in Virginia, McAuliffe wants voters to see him as a candidate eager to work with both parties.
In recent weeks, McAuliffe has trumpeted a cluster of endorsements from Republican business owners and former lawmakers, hoping to send a message that unlike opponent Ken Cuccinelli II, the GOP nominee, he is the candidate for all Virginians — not just Democrats.
Yet McAuliffe’s bipartisan pitch belies the warrior he was as President Bill Clinton’s principal fundraiser and as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a period when he chided Republicans for perpetuating “a culture of corruption and incompetence.”
President George W. Bush, by McAuliffe’s rendering, was a “disaster” whose administration “failed America on every single issue” and made Richard Nixon’s White House look “open, honest and trustworthy.”
At another point, McAuliffe recounted on C-SPAN that his father died before Bush took office because “he could not go into a new year knowing that a Republican was actually moving into the White House.”
Hoping to split Republicans
Already a veteran of one losing gubernatorial campaign in the commonwealth and still relatively unknown to many Virginians, McAuliffe is seeking to assemble a spectrum of support, courting business leaders, women and younger voters.
With polls showing a close race to succeed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), McAuliffe is aiming to capitalize on what Democrats believe is a breach between the GOP’s ticket and moderate Republicans who may regard Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson, the candidate for lieutenant governor, as too conservative on social issues.
“Republicans run from Cuccinelli/Jackson Ticket,” read the subject line of the e-mail McAuliffe’s campaign spokesman sent to reporters recently. “Business leaders and Mainstream Republicans Siding with Terry McAuliffe,” read another.
“You could only do it against Cuccinelli, who’s so easy to caricature,” said Ron Rappaport, a political science professor at the College of William and Mary. “I don’t think this would work against McDonnell, whom Republicans like and can bond with. With Cuccinelli, there’s a pause, and that gives McAuliffe an opportunity.”
McAuliffe is following a formula previously embraced by former governors Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, Democrats who cast themselves as non-ideological executives. McDonnell, viewed as a social conservative, emphasized economic issues when he ran for governor.
“If you look at the last 10 years, the candidate who has done a better job of demonstrating bipartisanship, the one who has done a better job of communicating a results-first message, is the candidate who won,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist who advised Warner and Kaine.
“In each one of those cases — Warner, Kaine, McDonnell — the winner is the one who comes off looking less ideological,” he said. “The majority of Virginians are non-ideological. Even when they subscribe to a particular ideology, they don’t want it getting in way of the trains running on time.”
In a campaign still in its early stages, the effect of McAuliffe’s attempt to cast himself as non-ideological is unclear. Yet McAuliffe’s strategy is not without risks, said Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst.
“He was essentially the partisan-in-chief, and now he’s defining himself as the voice of Virginia’s mainstream,” Holsworth said, adding that that evolution exposes McAuliffe to questions: “What does he believe in, and what does he care about?”
“Part of the argument against him is that he doesn’t have a strong core belief and that it’s all about likability,” Holsworth said. “Cuccinelli tries to be the opposite. He has principles. You may not like them, but you know what they are. It’s authenticity versus inauthenticity.”
Still, the potential gains could outweigh the risks for McAuliffe when both candidates are seeking to attract the state’s large numbers of moderate and independent voters.
Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, has sought to shift to the center by focusing on economic issues and not raising social issues. His views on gay rights and abortion have prompted Republicans — including his rival, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling — to describe this year’s GOP ticket as “extreme.”
Asked Wednesday at a campaign event about McAuliffe’s bipartisan appeal, Cuccinelli said: “Are you kidding me? Look at him — he has been a professional partisan Democrat for over 30 years.”
“If you want to get a meaningful policy through the General Assembly, I’m the only one with a shot at it,” Cuccinelli said, referring to his years as a state senator and attorney general. “I am far more bipartisan than Terry McAuliffe will ever be.”