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Is Virginia For McAuliffe?

Is Virginia For McAuliffe?

By Vaughn Ververs - January 27, 2009

When Barack Obama carried the state of Virginia last November, it was a remarkable political feat. A Democrat had not won there since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, after all, and the Old Dominion still retains much of its Old South image in the eyes of the rest of the nation.

To anyone paying attention over the past decade though, Obama's triumph there was less a dramatic break from the past than the continuance of demographic trends that have turned Virginia from deep red to purple, if not even a light shade of blue. For Democrats, two consecutive governors, two recently-minted U.S. Senators, a 6-5 majority in the U.S. House delegation and a majority in the state senate are not things that happened to the party overnight - or solely as the result of a single winning presidential campaign.

Now comes the next chapter in this political story -- the curious case of Terry McAuliffe.

On the surface, the recently launched 2009 gubernatorial campaign by this longtime Clinton fundraiser and acolyte appears to be a potential colossus. With an enormous national fundraising base, no limits on how much can be raised or spent, relatively high name recognition and friends in big places, McAuliffe certainly has the tools at his disposal for a top-notch run at Richmond.

"The Macker," as he's been nicknamed, is a man who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Democrats (mostly Bill and Hillary Clinton) over the past decade and a half. According to the Washington Post, estimates of what he could raise and spend in this campaign range upwards of $80 million. While McAuliffe aides have tried to tamp that number down, it's probably in the ballpark of the possible.

The kind of cash McAuliffe can raise will pay for more ads than Virginians were bombarded with during the presidential campaign - and over a longer period of time. Aiding in his message-projection are the hundreds of hours he's spent honing his television skills as a staunch supporter and defender of both Clintons and during a stint as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

That national leadership position, and the high profile skills McAuliffe has polished on the national stage provide another key advantage for him - heavyweight perception. The ability to cash in some of the chits he's gathered over the years and at least project a sense of gravitas despite having never won elective office himself is a bonus.

But each of the presupposed advantages McAuliffe brings to the race has its downside as well - and those could seriously hamper the juggernaut he's attempting to build.

Money may be the mother's milk of politics but it's not always the most important factor and Virginia has plenty of recent examples of that. In 1994, Oliver North raised $20 million for his bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Senator Chuck Robb. Despite that and a climate that gave Republicans historic victories in those midterm elections, North fell just short on election night. In 1996, Democrat Mark Warner spent $10 million of his personal fortune running against Senator John Warner. It would take twelve more years and a retirement for M. Warner to win the seat.

Along with the money McAuliffe will raise comes charges that he's little more than a carpetbagger trying to buy the governor's seat. Former state delegate Brian Moran, one of McAuliffe's two primary foes, is already hammering away on that theme and has challenged all candidates to refuse out-of-state money, something that would clearly hamper McAuliffe.

Moreover, newcomers to the Virginia political scene are rarely rewarded with such hefty prizes - particularly the chief executive one. Current Governor Tim Kaine was first elected Lt. Governor for Mark Warner, who had to at least lose a statewide election before ascending to Richmond. Republican Jim Gilmore was the state's Attorney General, George Allen a congressman, Douglas Wilder a Lt. Governor and the list goes on.

The paying of dues, not just bills, is something of an expectation. And while McAuliffe is quick to point out the 20 years he's lived in Virginia, it's been exclusively in the Northern Virginia-D.C. suburbs and not the rest of the state where he will need to be competitive in both a primary and general election fight. Money may not buy acceptance, particularly when you don't speak the language.

If all the fundraising and ads don't end up striking a negative chord with voters, the national political picture might. As Kaine gets set to finish his last year in office, he's also taking on a high-profile public role as chairman of the DNC while a former national party chairman vies for his job at home. This kind of grand-scale game of musical chairs, and the media circus that goes with it, may be too much for Virginia voters to take. And with Kaine as a high-profile defender of the new administration, any rough patches it hits could easily end up tarnishing his image - and that of Democrats in the state.

Finally, consider this historical nugget - the last time Virginia elected a governor of the same party as the sitting president was 1973. Even if McAuliffe manages to fend off Moran and state senator Creigh Deeds (no sure thing at all, even with a huge money advantage), he'll have to take on almost certain GOP nominee Bob McDonnell, the state's Attorney General who has no primary opponents and will be laying in wait for whichever Democrat emerges.

The growing importance of the northern Virginia population centers, the success of Democratic moderates like Warner and Kaine downstate and recent trends show that McAuliffe can win, but he'll have to buck some of the state's other trends to do it.

Vaughn Ververs is a political writer and reporter who has served as the Senior Political editor for CBSNews.com and Editor of the National Journal's Hotline. He can be reached at vververs@gmail.com.

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