Nov. 5 (Bloomberg) -- If I were ever impeached, I would want Terry McAuliffe at my side.
I mention this because McAuliffe’s friendship with former President Bill Clinton is one of the things being held against him as he runs for governor of Virginia.
In descriptions of McAuliffe, “happy” is often followed by “go-lucky,” which reduces his gravitas despite a career spanning four decades that includes stints as the founder of a driveway-paving company (at age 14), a banker, a real estate developer, a venture capitalist, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and, most recently, chairman of a troubled electric carmaker. He’s the groomsman (fundraiser), never the groom (elected official), the excitable puppy who will do anything to raise a dime or close a deal.
As with all caricatures, this one has some basis in fact. He once wrestled an alligator to secure a $15,000 contribution for President Jimmy Carter, which landed him and the reptile on the cover of Life. He got the DNC out of debt with a $578 million haul, arranged the primary calendar in Democrats’ favor and created “Demzilla,” a database of 170 million voters.
With his Rolodex of 18,632 names, he has turned business contacts into contributors and vice versa (making millions, for instance, after investing in the Internet company Global Crossing Ltd.). In 2000, he broke fundraising records with a single event, pulling in $26.3 million for a tribute to Bill Clinton.
That picture of McAuliffe helped kill his 2009 run at the Virginia governorship. He was defeated in the primary by a quiet state senator, Creigh Deeds, who went on to lose the general election to a conservative Republican, Bob McDonnell, whose attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, is McAuliffe’s opponent this year.
McAuliffe worked against type this time. In 2009, he kept boxes of his rollicking, good-times memoir to hand out. This year, the tome is nowhere in sight.
While campaigning this past weekend, his natural ebullience was so tamped down he could have been on a listening tour. Standing next to President Barack Obama on Nov. 3 in a Virginia suburb, McAuliffe was the cool one.
But a week earlier, the Big Dog was around for a weekend of campaigning across the state, and the old, irrationally exuberant McAuliffe was back. Like a proud dad passing the torch to an impatient son, Clinton came to the VFW hall in Dale City, Virginia, and man-hugged the guy for whom no hour was too late for a visit or a game of hearts.
Clinton carefully tucked the folder with his notes under his arm so he could reverse roles and lead the applause for his protege. “Terry’s gotten so good on the stump, I don’t think he needs me anymore.”
The corruption scandals that have swirled around the Virginia governor’s mansion have so weighed on Cuccinelli that he now tries to make it seem like he never even met his boss. But getting distance is tough: Cuccinelli accepted money from the same sketchy character, Jonnie R. Williams, who allegedly got personal help with state regulators for his dietary-supplement company from the governor and his wife. While McDonnell apologized and returned the money, Cuccinelli hasn’t followed suit. Continuing investigations and lawsuits keep the Williams case in the news.
This has diminished the impact of Cuccinelli’s campaign ads that accuse McAuliffe of unsavory business dealings. He would have been on more fertile ground had the biggest corruption story of the campaign -- purportedly involving McAuliffe -- turned out to be true. In fact, it was so untrue that the Associated Press fired the reporter and editor responsible for publishing the story.
In the last month of campaigning, the Republicans’ shutdown of the government swallowed what was left of Cuccinelli’s efforts. It cost the economy an estimated $24 billion, and it hurt northern Virginia, with its heavy contingent of government workers and private contractors, especially hard.
Even as McAuliffe goes into today’s election with a lead of 6 to 12 points, his caricature is already taking away from his expected victory. According to the conventional wisdom, McAuliffe won’t so much win as Cuccinelli will lose. Republicans are whispering that McAuliffe’s victory isn’t a defeat for the embattled party, or the triumph of a liberal Democrat, but represents only the failings of one ultraconservative candidate with specific problems.
Kaflooey. Cuccinelli is cut from the same cloth as McDonnell, who proposed requiring women seeking abortions to be subjected to vaginal probes. That’s what passes for mainstream Virginia Republican thought these days. Cuccinelli favors so-called personhood bills that would outlaw some methods of birth control and measures that would prevent couples with children from obtaining a no-fault divorce. He was one of only three attorneys general who didn’t join a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Among women, Cuccinelli is likely to lose so big (58 percent to 34 percent, according to a Washington Post poll) that even a large turnout of older white men in southwestern Virginia won’t save him.
To counteract the two Clintons, one president and one vice president who deployed on behalf of McAuliffe, Cuccinelli has brought in conservative all-stars: Governors Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker, and Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Now, he’s counting on his hatred of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to salvage his campaign.
Cuccinelli is one of the most unfortunate candidates to come along in a while. Happy-go-lucky McAuliffe gets lucky again.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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