HARRISONBURG, Va. — This time out, Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign strategy came down to three points: dramatically outspend the opponent, take advantage of outside factors and keep his outsized persona to himself.
If he wins the Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday, McAuliffe will achieve what eluded him four years ago: his first elected position after a political career marked by a stint as a national Democratic Party chairman and the distinction of being a Clinton family confidant.
McAuliffe lost the Democratic primary for governor in 2009 after getting tagged early on as a fast-talking, partisan, carpet-bagging campaign operative who didn’t really match up to Virginians’ priorities.
“I got up the next day, dusted myself off and went right back out there,” McAuliffe said during a recent interview with The Associated Press.
He also learned lessons from that defeat and used them to craft a campaign that, according to polls, may be on track to winning. If successful, he will break a long streak in state history. During the last nine governor’s races, the party that controlled the White House at the time has always lost.
Should he win, McAuliffe partly can credit his own political skills.
His fundraising prowess and celebrity connections helped him raise enough money to beat back GOP efforts to tar him over giving White House access to political donors during Bill Clinton’s presidency and investing with someone who later admitted to stealing the identities of terminally ill patients.
That talent for fundraising, combined with a go-for-the-jugular instinct, allowed him to paint Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli as an ideologue too extreme for the swing-voting state. Virginia’s attorney general, Cuccinelli attempted to block the federal health care law and sued a University of Virginia climate scientist under the state’s anti-fraud laws.
McAuliffe alone had been outspending Cuccinelli by a 25-to-1 margin on the TV airwaves this week. On Friday, both campaigns said Cuccinelli bought more airtime for the final days, narrowing the gap to 10-1.
But McAuliffe isn’t criticizing Cuccinelli by himself. Outside groups, including Planned Parenthood, the labor unions AFSCME and the United Steelworkers, have stepped in with tons more in ads.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is spending more than $1 million on ads criticizing Cuccinelli’s support for gun rights, and California billionaire Tom Steyer has spent more than $2.4 million on ads criticizing Cuccinelli’s environmental record.
The gregarious, chatty McAuliffe also proved himself to be a much more disciplined candidate than he was four years ago. He has resisted the urge to weigh in on every issue or make himself available to reporters at all times, and he’s limiting his public appearances in the campaign’s final days. All that has cut down on missteps that tended to throw off his 2009 campaign.
Political skills aside, luck also has had a lot to do with McAuliffe’s performance.
His good fortune started with the GOP nominating Cuccinelli, a far-right Republican with tea party backing and a conservative record on abortion, health care, Social Security, Medicaid, guns and climate change.
Also helping McAuliffe: the donor scandal that rocked incumbent Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and cast a shadow on the state GOP and its gubernatorial nominee.
Then came the partial government shutdown. McAuliffe’s allies took delight in linking Cuccinelli to the tea party House Republicans demanding that any deal to reopen government include no funding for the health care law. The shutdown resonated in a state that’s home to 172,000 federal civilian workers.
McAuliffe’s unrelenting criticism of Cuccinelli — backed up by broadsides from his allies — has taken a toll.
Through it all, McAuliffe has sold himself as a pragmatic dealmaker who would work with Republicans, shifting to a message of inclusion and bipartisanship.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ in business,” McAuliffe said, using the abbreviations for the political parties. “I like to operate between the 40-yard lines. ‘Compromise’ is not a bad word.”
He tells crowds he’s still a “proud Democrat” but that partisanship isn’t his hallmark. Left unsaid is the suggestion that it is for his opponent.
“I’ll work with anybody,” McAuliffe said. “I don’t care what your party affiliation is if we can make the ball move forward.”
On policy matters, McAuliffe backed McDonnell’s transportation plan, which Cuccinelli opposed, in a state where infrastructure is a top concern for voters.
While Cuccinelli has made his opposition to the Medicaid expansion a central piece of his campaign, McAuliffe has pledged to expand Medicaid programs in Virginia as part of the Democrats’ health care law, which he said could allow 400,000 Virginia residents to “gain access to quality, lifesaving coverage.”