Terry McAuliffe toyed with a presidential bid for months only to bow out. But back in his adopted state of Virginia, it’s assumed he’s going to run for a second term as governor.
McAuliffe hasn’t decided, though he doesn’t exactly discourage the speculation, either. But a half-dozen people close to him told POLITICO he’s seriously considering it. And Democrats in Richmond are operating as though it’s a done deal.
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“Among Democratic functionaries and party officials and people who follow this,” Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen said, “it would not be a surprise.”
McAuliffe — the former national Democratic Party chairman, famous friend of the Clintons and fundraiser nonpareil — is already acting like a candidate. He’s holding strategy sessions with state Democratic leaders at his home outside Washington, according to a person familiar with his schedule. He’s weighing opening a new political action committee to accept big-dollar donations for candidates from his long list of contacts in money circles.
And he’s set to headline more than 60 political events in Virginia in the coming weeks. Democrats are trying to win back majorities in the House and Senate this year, when all 140 seats in the nearly evenly divided legislature are up for grabs.
In the next week alone, McAuliffe is speaking at events for two state senators, two delegates, the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, the AFL-CIO and Arlington County Democrats, the person said.
“Being governor of Virginia was the highlight of his life and I’m sure he’d love it again,” said Josh Schwerin, a longtime adviser to McAuliffe. But Schwerin said McAuliffe’s sole focus this year is helping Democrats win in November.
Virginia is the only state that limits its governors to a single four-year term. But there’s nothing in state law to stop an outgoing governor from waiting it out for four years and then running again.
If Democrats win the general assembly this year, it would make running for governor again more enticing. The Republican-led chamber thwarted McAuliffe’s signature campaign promise of expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, though it passed after he left office.
Richard Saslaw, the Senate Democratic leader, said he urged McAuliffe recently to run for governor again, saying he would be his first choice.
“I told him, ‘I hope you come back and run.’ He just smiled,” Saslaw said. “A lot of people have been encouraging him to run. Terry could win.”
If McAuliffe were to succeed, he would be the second governor in state history to serve a second term since Virginia began electing governors. Mills Godwin Jr. served one term as governor as a Democrat from 1966 to 1970, then came back to win a second term as a Republican from 1974 to 1978.
Not all Democrats think McAuliffe will make a play for his old job, though. He loves being courted, according to people close to him, but some think he’ll back away once he realizes he would be unlikely to duplicate the success of his first term.
Instead, they think McAuliffe will angle for a Cabinet secretary post or ambassadorship if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, especially his longtime friend Joe Biden.
“Terry McAuliffe has a lot of options of what he can do in life,” said Susan Swecker, McAuliffe’s longtime friend and chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Democrats have found themselves without an obvious successor to Gov. Ralph Northam after both the lieutenant governor and attorney general were embroiled in scandals earlier this year. Just days after Northam cameunder firefor his 1984 medical school yearbook page that showeda man wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and another in blackface, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax faced two separateallegationsof sexual assault, and Attorney General Mark Herringadmittedto wearing blackface in the past. Fairfax denied the assault claims.
That cascade of bad news for Democrats in a state that’s been drifting their way politically has only fueled talk of a McAuliffe sequel.
Remarkably, all three statewide Democrats have withstood demands to resign from across the state and nation. Fairfax has been shunned by his party, largely unable to raise money or campaign for candidates. Herring has been less damaged, according to a recent poll, and has done some political events for Democrats. But many Democrats deem the two as unelectable. Herring still intends to run for governor, according to his office, while Fairfax’s office declined to say.
McAuliffe hasn’t told friends and supporters he is running for governor. But he has said to people close to him that he is thinking about it, according to some of them.
The widely held belief that McAuliffe will run hasn’t deterred some lesser-known — but younger and more diverse — politicians from positioning themselves to seek the job.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan opened a leadership PAC this week to raise money for candidates, the first step toward an expected run for governor. Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a former McAuliffe aide, also are mentioned as possible candidates.
Some Democrats in the state say Virginia needs a fresh face — perhaps a woman or an African American — to lead them after the scandals.
Rep. Don McEachin (D-Va.), who just endorsed Biden for president, said it’s too early to get behind any potential candidate, including McAuliffe. McEachin said he has not spoken with McAuliffe about his plans.
“He’s a tireless campaigner, a hard worker, certainly knows the state. We’ll just have to see what happens in 2021,” McEachin said.
A former businessman and longtime Democratic Party macher, McAuliffe had never held public office when he narrowly won his second bid for governor in 2013. He ran as someone who’d be friendly to business but liberal on social issues.
Even Republicans acknowledge he was good at the job, at least in some areas. He was an exuberant promoter of the state, helping to attract more than 200,000 new jobs and $20 billion in capital investment.
“He’s contemplating another run because he enjoyed it,” said Bill Stanley, a Republican leader in the state Senate who is considering a run for governor. “He did it his way.”
But Stanley said it would be tough for McAuliffe to run again in Virginia. “Not that it can’t be done, but it’s hard to do,” he said. “Do [voters] want something new or a repeat performance?”
McAuliffe decidednot to run for presidentafter speaking to hundreds of people in early-nominating states, donors and friends over the past two years. He concluded he didn’t have a path to the White House, especially once Biden entered the race.
But he quickly framed his decision not to run as a way to help Virginia by boosting Democratic candidates in 2019 and 2020.
“I’m going to work the next six months every single day to make sure [in] Virginia, we win the House and the Senate, and then next year I’m going to work like a dog to make sure that we are blue,” McAuliffe told CNN in April. Asked whether he planned to run for governor again, McAuliffe didn’t rule it out. “I am focused this year on the House and Senate,” he said, sidestepping the question.
In a statement to POLITICO, McAuliffe didn’t mention the governor’s race. “I am laser-focused on working with Virginia Democrats to flip our general assembly blue this November,” he said. “When I made my decision not to run for president, it was because I knew I could affect the most change here in Virginia in 2019. Virginia Democrats can’t lose sight of the elections right in front of us.”
Republicans hold a two-seat majority both in the Senate, which has flipped back and forth between the parties four times during the past decade, and in the House, where Democrats made massive gains in 2017 and nearly took control.
But the recent scandals have Republicanseyeing gainsin the state, where Democrats have held all five statewide offices since 2013.
“He loved being governor — and he was good at it,” said Paul Reagan, McAuliffe’s former chief of staff. “It’s natural that people would think” he’d run again.”