Terry McAuliffe's crushing defeat in Virginia's gubernatorial primary is the latest blow to former President Bill Clinton's political legacy, still reeling from Hillary Rodham Clinton's loss to Barack Obama in last year's Democratic presidential contest.
McAuliffe, a longtime fundraiser and close friend of both Clintons, brought money and attention to an off-year election that otherwise would have commanded little notice outside Virginia. Bill Clinton appeared at five rallies across the state for McAuliffe, lent his voice to radio commercials and recorded telephone endorsements to help get out the vote. Clinton also attended a fundraiser at McAuliffe's northern Virginia home.
McAuliffe raised about $7 million for the campaign, nearly double what primary winner Creigh Deeds brought in, and led state polls throughout much of the race even though he was a first-time candidate and newcomer to Virginia politics. But Deeds still won decisively, also beating former state delegate Brian Moran, and will face Republican Bob McDonnell in the fall.
Learning the hard way
The sheer scope of Deeds' victory — he won nearly 50 percent of the primary vote and carried 10 of the state's 11 congressional districts — made one thing breathtakingly clear: The Clinton star power doesn't necessarily translate into votes.
"I'm not sure I'd say the Clintons' influence is over — Hillary is still secretary of state and former President Clinton certainly still has cachet. But this primary does tarnish it to some extent," said Harry Wilson, a political science professor at Virginia's Roanoke College.
Hillary Clinton learned the hard way in 2008 that there are limitations to the celebrity her last name confers.
The former first lady and New York senator had been anointed the "inevitable" Democratic presidential nominee, largely because of the national network she and her popular husband had built. But that didn't stop Obama from surging past her in the Iowa caucuses and ultimately winning the nomination.
Hillary Clinton's spokesman Philippe Reines said Clinton considers McAuliffe "one of her oldest and closest friends and thinks the world of him" but as secretary of state, her political activity is limited by federal law. He declined to say what, if any, political counsel she might have lent McAuliffe in his race.
"If there were (any conversations) they'd be private," Reines said.
Ironically, McAuliffe, who campaigned hard against Obama during the primaries as Clinton's presidential campaign chairman, tried to emulate Obama's outsider persona and insurgent message in his campaign even as he was promoting his Clinton connections.
A McAuliffe asset?
But Virginia has never been particularly hospitable to the Clintons.
Bill Clinton lost the state in both the 1992 and 1996 general elections. Obama bested Hillary Clinton by a whopping 29 points in Virginia's presidential primary last year, helped in part by his popularity among black voters. Obama was running to be the first black president, and many blacks had grown alienated from the Clintons after Bill Clinton seemed to belittle Obama in the heated early contests.
But Bill Clinton went on to campaign for Obama in Virginia during the general election campaign last fall against Republican John McCain, helping Obama become the first Democrat to win the state's presidential contest in 40 years.
McAuliffe did relatively well among black voters, winning the heavily black Tidewater-area congressional district — the only district Deeds lost.
McAuliffe spokesman Mo Elleithee said that overall, Clinton's involvement benefited McAuliffe's efforts.
"I think Bill Clinton up to the very end was an asset to Terry," Elleithee said. "At a time when we were still introducing Terry and his message to a lot of people, Bill Clinton offered important validation. And he could speak with authority as a former governor about how Terry would be a job creator."
The Clinton connection also failed to boost another, less visible race in Virginia — that of Adam Parkhomenko, a top aide to Hillary Clinton's first campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle. The former president endorsed and recorded a telephone endorsement for Parkhomenko, who was running for a seat in the House of Delegates. Parkhomenko placed third in the Democratic primary.