McAuliffe's backslapping political brand put to test in 2021

·5 min read

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Terry McAuliffe is a blur of handshakes, hugs, backslaps and smiles as he glides through the friendly crowd at Gethsemane Baptist Church seeking help from above.

For the former Virginia governor running again for his old job, it's not necessarily God's grace he's after at this moment. He's seeking assistance from another higher power a few hours north in Washington, where McAuliffe's longtime friends in Congress are struggling to pass an infrastructure package that could help millions of Virginia residents — and his own campaign.

McAuliffe's desperation to turn that legislation, with its billions of dollars for new roads and bridges, into a final pitch to voters is clear when he runs into Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat and close political ally.

“Greatest member of Congress to ever serve! He’s our man!” McAuliffe proclaims with his arm around the 15-term congressman. “You gonna get me an infrastructure bill?”

Scott pauses for a few moments of awkward silence.

“Uhhh, it’ll be last minute,” he says not-so-confidently as McAuliffe moves to shake another hand.

Such high-touch bravado worked for McAuliffe in 2013, when he became the only Virginia candidate in 44 years to win the governor's mansion when his party occupied the White House. But in the closing days of the 2021 election, the 64-year-old Democrat's intensely personal brand of politics, one that leverages decades-old friendships, frenetic hands-on campaigning and unrestrained authenticity, is facing a more formidable test.

McAuliffe is locked in a close race with Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin in a state President Joe Biden carried by 10 points last fall. Shifts in the state's swelling suburbs near Washington, D.C., and around Richmond have benefited Democrats in recent years — particularly when former President Donald Trump was in office. And while no Republican has won statewide here in more than a decade, Biden's rough summer, dominated by the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and a stalled domestic agenda, threatens to undermine McAuliffe's apparent advantages.

Much like Biden, McAuliffe is in some ways a throwback to the politics of the past, when the Democratic Party's leadership was dominated by older, white men who conducted business in smoke-filled rooms where the booze flowed freely. He developed his political playbook looking over the shoulders of Bill and Hillary Clinton, for whom he raised hundreds of millions of dollars as a chief political fundraiser in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Syracuse, New York, native wrote openly about his fundraising jaunts at casinos and golf courses with the political elite in the book “What a Party!” published years before he became governor.

More recently, however, the Democratic Party has become much more diverse, much less friendly to wealthy donors and much more sensitive to the behavior of its leaders. While McAuliffe is eager to talk about his accomplishments during his term as governor, his gregarious personality can overshadow his policies during campaign swings.

McAuliffe proudly proclaims that he attends 10 to 15 political events each day, seven days a week. There have been few large rallies, however. Most of his gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic have been invitation-only, policy-focused events with small groups of local health officials, educators and faith leaders, among others. Closed-door fundraising events are a regular part of the schedule as well.

McAuliffe will draw bigger crowds when a collection of high-profile, longtime political allies visit the state on his behalf in the coming days, including former President Barack Obama and Biden himself. Bill and Hillary Clinton, who attended his first inauguration, have not been a visible part of the campaign, though they hosted two private fundraising events and Hillary Clinton signed three fundraising emails.

Democratic Del. Marcia Price, who is Black, acknowledged that some of her constituents are not excited about the election, but suggested the pandemic was to blame far more than McAuliffe's appeal. Still, she said the party is ready for more diverse leadership.

“I’m not voting on who in the entire world I want to be governor. I have two choices ... and Terry is the best choice,” she said. “Is it time for diversity? Yes. Is it time for the party to really take a look at itself? Absolutely. But I can walk and chew gum at the same time. Terry’s got to be elected.”

McAuliffe's appeal to African Americans, who represent 20% of the state's population and a critical slice of the Democratic base, is central to his candidacy. His focus on racial equity also plays well among college-educated white people in the growing suburbs.

On the campaign trail, he highlights his decision as governor to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons — many of them Black. He also frequently reminds voters that in 2015 he ordered the removal of a state-sponsored license plate that featured the Confederate flag.

“That’s what they think of me. They don’t (think of) my age or the color of my skin,” McAuliffe said.

When asked, he stopped short of saying that Virginia still has a problem with systemic racism.

“You still have to go and deal with issues that go back many years here in Virginia, but we’re in a different place from when I was governor,” McAuliffe said.

The former governor is also eager to promote his plans for moving past the pandemic, for education and for protecting women's access to abortion, all of which he says are under attack by his Republican opponent. But McAuliffe may be most proud of his economic record while governor, which has drawn praise from some business-minded Republicans and independents.

A businessman himself, McAuliffe led more than 30 trade and marketing missions to other countries to bring new business to the state. Unemployment fell from 5.7% to 3.3% while he was in office.

Aubrey Layne, who served as McAuliffe’s secretary of transportation, said the former governor has both character and competence. He said he set high expectations for his staff, held them accountable and worked hard himself.

“He never slept,” Layne said.

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Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin in Richmond contributed to this report.

Steve Peoples, The Associated Press

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