Democrat Terry McAuliffe didn’t create the jobs he said he would in Virginia. Instead, he started a car company that has sold few – if any – cars and may never do so again.
He’s accused of trying to leverage political influence with a federal agency to help his financial dealings.
And, on top of all that, he once admitted leaving his wife and newborn baby, on their way back from the hospital, in a car so he could attend a fundraiser.
Virginia, this is the man who’s leading the polls to be your state’s next governor.
To be sure, the polls have tightened, and with strong turnout from his base and the hit from the government shutdown beginning to ebb, the Ken Cuccinelli campaign believes the Republican state attorney general might pull off the upset.
Still, here’s the unmistakable question: How is McAuliffe -- the flamboyant Clinton friend, prolific party fundraiser, and consummate political insider who lost a primary four years ago to someone who got walloped in the general election – on the cusp of winning in this swing state?
“What a bizarre alignment of the cosmos,” said one Democratic operative not attached to the campaign.
People close to McAuliffe and Republicans following the race chalk it up to six different reasons – a flawed opponent, a significant financial advantage, learning from mistakes of his 2009 campaign, a stronger message, a more favorable environment for Democrats, and using the Obama presidential roadmap.
Cuccinelli was the more flawed candidate
Elections are choices. And for as flawed as McAuliffe is, Cuccinelli has had a difficult time reaching out to voters in the middle of the electorate.
The Tea Party-aligned Cuccinelli, who took President Barack Obama’s health-care law to the Supreme Court, is a staunch opponent of abortion rights, gay rights and climate-change science – in a state Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012. He also brought in a parade of Tea Party superstars to campaign for him – from Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum to the Duggars, the Christian conservative family, famous for their cable TV show “19 Kids and Counting.”
In the end, the Cuccinelli game plan was to energize the base, but it may have also turned off many establishment Virginia moderates and John Warner Republicans.
“At the beginning of the year, Cuccinelli said the GOP doesn’t need to get more moderate,” a McAuliffe aide said. “He took that approach throughout.”
Money: Cuccinelli ‘was not able to define himself’
McAuliffe’s financial advantage is the biggest factor Republicans point to for the state of the race. McAuliffe outraised Cuccinelli by almost $15 million – $34.4 million to $19.7 million. And he outspent him on the airwaves, with McAuliffe and allies pouring in $24 million to Cuccinelli’s $17 million, according to ad-tracking data used by one of the campaigns and shared with First Read. That is a reversal from 2012 when Republican outside groups overwhelmed Democrats.
That difference on air was especially pronounced in the last couple of months of the race, when McAuliffe outspent Cuccinelli by as much as 3-to-1. But, by then, the McAuliffe campaign argues that its internal polling already had its candidate leading. In fact, McAuliffe has not trailed in a public poll since mid-July.
That came right after Cuccinelli went dark for a period of a couple of weeks from early June until mid-July. But it also came after a myriad of stories in local media about $18,000 in gifts Cuccinelli took from Jonnie Williams, CEO of supplement-maker Star Scientific. That story stretched from April until September when Cuccinelli finally wrote a check to charity in the amount of the gifts. The McAuliffe campaign has said for months that there were more stories on local news about Star Scientific and Cuccinelli than stories about GreenTech Automotive, the fledging car company McAuliffe started.
Still, money made a difference.
“You run into a situation where you have a candidate, for financial reasons, who was not able to define himself the way he would like, can’t refute at the level it needs to be, and even when he went up, even that was not at the point level of the competing campaign,” said a Republican strategist who has followed the race closely.
Cuccinelli was unable to raise the kind of money past Republicans have from business groups and traditional Republican donors – despite Virginia allowing unlimited contributions. For much of the race, the Republican Governors Association carried a heavy load, pouring in $8 million to Cuccinelli’s campaign. He only received three checks of $100,000 or more outside of the RGA and state party. McAuliffe, on the other hand, got 37 $100,000 checks in addition to $6.4 million from the Democratic Governors Association.
The Republican strategist chalked up Cuccinelli’s lackluster fundraising to donor fatigue after a disappointing 2012 presidential election and incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell’s own troubles with Star Scientific.
Learning from 2009 mistakes: ‘No reporter got more than 10 minutes.’
McAuliffe ran a much more disciplined campaign than in 2009. The famously avuncular McAuliffe, who had previously never met a camera he didn’t like, kept a low profile. In fact, he did zero national TV interviews and only a handful of local affiliate sit downs.
It was a rule set in place by campaign higher ups way back in November of last year.
The former Hillary Clinton campaign adviser, who would go on cable to boast that his candidate would win during the waning days of the 2008 primary (once even wearing a Hawaiian shirt!) ditched the buoyant, fast-talking, know-it-all, party-man persona for one that was staid and out of the spotlight.
Gone were the plays for attention of the last campaign, like the provocative yellow signs urging people to ask him how he could make energy out of “chicken sh*t” that dotted the path to Shad Planking, the annual Virginia political fish fry and candidate roast in rural Wakefield, Va. McAuliffe, who took the brunt of the barbs at the event four years ago, this time around, didn’t even attend.
“He had a laser-like discipline and focus that was almost annoying to reporters,” the Democratic operative said. “In 2009, he talked to anyone, anytime. This time, no reporter got more than 10 minutes.”
Message: ‘Cuccinelli didn’t try to move to the middle, and Terry filled it up.’
Jobs, bipartisanship, and good governance is the well-tested message to win in Virginia – whether it’s a Democrat or Republican. McAuliffe stuck to that message and did not get sidetracked.
His campaign spotlighted Cuccinelli’s views on abortion and birth control to target Northern Virginia women with millions in campaign ads, used his socially conservative stances to try and blunt the Republican’s ability to raise money from GOP-leaning businesses, and highlighted his opposition to McDonnell’s transportation plan to show he would not govern in a bipartisan way.
“When Terry went after him on social issues, he made it bigger,” the operative said, “that it’s proof that he won’t work for you, that he’s in it for his own ideology, not for you.”
The McAuliffe aide added, “You can’t attract businesses if you are pushing a social agenda. As business people, you see a social, ideological agenda as a roadblock. … He was to the right of mainstream Republicans. … Cuccinelli didn’t try to move to the middle, and Terry filled it up.”
Environment: Bad branding - from the shutdown to $6,000 Rolexes
Cuccinelli also suffered from a badly damaged Republican Party brand in Virginia. In the May NBC/Marist poll, the GOP had just a 37/53 percent favorable/unfavorable rating. By October, after the government shutdown, it got even worse. With Republicans being blamed for the shutdown – in a state heavily impacted by it -- the GOP rating dropped to 33/62 percent.
“It’s easy to get a federal voter in Northern Virginia when you have a shutdown going on,” the Democratic operative said. “It brings it home. It was a nail” in the Cuccinelli campaign.
There was also the bad news about McDonnell, who had previously stood above his party. He won a sweeping election in 2009, had sky-high approval ratings, and there was even talk of the vice-presidential short list and perhaps a national run of his own. And then in March, came the stories of gifts from donors and talk of FBI investigations.
Cuccinelli allies argue the bad news about McDonnell hurt Cuccinelli’s ability to raise money from Northern Virginia Republicans previously enthusiastic about McDonnell.
“Bob is on the front page with a $6,000 watch with questions of, ‘Should he give it back?’” the Republican strategist said. “Yeah, that’s a f------ problem.”
The strategist added, “They [donors] had a guy, who they thought was one of the greatest Virginia governors ever, who now is being investigated by the FBI. I mean, come on. That’s a big deal. And in the process you took the entire ethics conversation off table on Terry McAuliffe. That’s real points on the ballot, millions in bank, and the core issue of your opponent.”
Ironically, McDonnell continues to enjoy job-approval ratings above 50 percent; his favorability ratings are higher than either candidate; and a September NBC/Marist poll showed he would even defeat McAuliffe if he were running for reelection – albeit narrowly.
Demographics: ‘They thought boring white people would be enough’
Virginia is changing. The share of the white vote has declined by 12 percentage points since 1990, while minorities, especially Hispanics and Asians have grown exponentially.
It’s all made for a more inviting political ground for Democrats.
“Demographics are a-changing,” the Democratic operative said. “The GOP proved they don’t understand that. They just assumed they’d drive down turnout and get old, white people to vote. They miscalculated the electorate. They thought boring white people would be enough.”
High-tech Obama campaign roadmap
President Obama won the state twice, and McAuliffe’s campaign brought on board some of the same people to re-run the system.
“It took a proven Virginia strategy and brought new tactics to execute it,” the operative said.
Several Democrats credit Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D) 2005 gubernatorial run for creating the modern Democratic roadmap to win statewide -- focused on the exurbs and national Democratic voters.
Data and technological innovations employed by the Obama campaign have taken the guesswork out of who or where those voters are. And the McAuliffe campaign brought on board some of the same people who were integral to Obama’s Virginia effort.
“We have all of the Obama campaign contact data,” the McAuliffe aide said. “We were able to build off that,” using modeling from it and integrating social media and behavioral targeting “in a way the GOP can’t do.”
If despite all that, the Cuccinelli campaign pulls off the win, chalk it up to the “shutdown being in the rear-view mirror, Obamacare being front and center,” the strategist said, “and Ken being disciplined talking about vision on the economy, energy, education in the workforce, and consistently hammering those points at every stop throughout.”
And maybe some of those McAuliffe ethics issues broke through, too.
Either way, somebody has to win, and it’s not always pretty.
“Elections are about being the right candidate with the right message, for the right moment in history,” the Democratic operative said of McAuliffe. “Maybe, he was not the right candidate. But both parties nominated someone who could not win.”
First published November 5 2013, 12:04 PM