Terry ‘The Macher’ McAuliffe attempts a return to Richmond

In a historically diverse field, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe thinks his throwback campaign is the way for Democrats to maintain power

Last month, Virginia completed its most progressive General Assembly session in history, with legislation setting a path for legalizing marijuana, abolishing the death penalty, expanding voting access and allowing state health care plans to cover abortion. In the state’s gubernatorial election this fall — the first major election in the Biden era — Virginians will decide whether they want to continue riding the “blue wave” that has defined the state’s politics since 2017 — or whether Democratic gains in the state might have a short shelf life.

The state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, taking place in June, features the most diverse set of candidates in Virginia’s history. There’s Jennifer Carroll Foy, one of the first Black women to graduate from the esteemed Virginia Military Institute; Jennifer McClellan, a corporate attorney and vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus; Justin Fairfax, the current lieutenant governor and just the second Black politician ever elected to statewide office; Lee Carter, a 33-year-old self-proclaimed socialist in the House of Delegates; and Terry McAuliffe, who served as governor once before and has been a Democratic Party fixture since the Clinton administration.

In an interview with Jewish Insider, McAuliffe — who ran unopposed in the 2013 Democratic primary — sought to make the case that he’s Virginia’s best bet. (McAuliffe previously served one term, and Virginia law allows governors to serve multiple terms, but not consecutively.) The relatively moderate McAuliffe, who has been given the Yiddish nickname “The Macher” for his loaded political rolodex, is likely to face pushback in the historic field amid some Democrats’ appetite for candidates who reflect the party’s diverse base. 

“We have the biggest, broadest coalition of anybody,” McAuliffe told JI. “So I would say, yeah, we’re getting people who are actually excited.” He cited the progressive priorities that he backed during his previous term as governor from 2014 to 2018, including his support for criminal justice reforms and reproductive rights. But perhaps McAuliffe’s strongest case is pure electoral math: “I’m the only person in 44 years who’s broken the horrible curse [that] whoever wins the White House, the other party wins the governor’s mansion,” he said. 

Democratic gains in the state’s 2017 and 2019 legislature elections, which led to the party taking control of the General Assembly in 2020 for the first time in more than two decades, reflect demographic shifts in the state that are certainly here to stay. But Jewish Democrats and political experts from across the state hint that another Democratic victory in the state is not guaranteed.

“Anyone who thinks the Virginia governor’s race will be easy for Democrats hasn’t studied their history,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who grew up in Richmond’s Jewish community and began his career in Virginia politics. 

Put another way: “It looks like it’s McAuliffe’s race to lose right now,” said Quentin Kidd, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.

One of McAuliffe’s closest allies in the Jewish community is Jack Moline, rabbi emeritus at Alexandria’s Agudas Achim Congregation and president of the Interfaith Alliance. Moline told JI that “it isn’t so much that minds are changing, but concentrations of voters are.” He pointed out that “one of the reasons that Virginia is bluer and bluer is that the population of the Commonwealth is growing at the north end” — the suburbs of Washington — “and the east parts of the state, which are historically Democratic, and the more rural areas are diminishing in their in their population.” Still, Moline said, “There’s no such thing as a lock on elections for one party or the other.”

One piece of that demographic change has been a recent increase in Virginia’s Jewish population, although the state has a historic Jewish community whose presence in the state dates back to the late 18th century. In 2019, there were approximately 150,000 Jews in the Old Dominion, up from 98,000 in 2010.

In conversation with JI, McAuliffe touted his pro-Israel bona fides: “I tried to foster that as governor, a strong relationship between Israel and Virginia,” he said. McAuliffe, who is not Jewish, has a daughter who lives in Israel and works for the Israeli news company i24. 

Virginia and Israel “did a lot of economic projects together,” he said, mentioning a trade mission he took to Israel while in office. “I went over and spent an hour alone with Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]. I’ve met [Ehud] Olmert. I’ve met with [Ariel] Sharon, [Ehud] Barak, and [Shimon] Peres,” McAuliffe said, listing several of Israel’s past prime ministers.

At a Virginia gubernatorial debate on Tuesday night, the four other Democrats running for Virginia’s top office said they would not take any government action against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israel, which many members of the Jewish community believe unfairly singles out the country and seeks its destruction as a Jewish state. Only Carter expressed outright support for the movement. McAuliffe did not attend the debate. Virginia’s General Assembly passed legislation condemning the BDS movement in 2016, though the resolution did not criminalize the movement or its supporters. 

McAuliffe told JI he has not yet met specifically with members of Virginia’s Jewish community during his campaign, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. But he noted that many prominent Jewish Democrats have come out in support of his campaign. “My top supporter, of course, is Eileen Filler-Corn, who is speaker [of the House] and a leader in the Jewish community,” McAuliffe said. “I want Virginia to be open and welcoming. I do not tolerate any, any type of racism [or] antisemitism.” In a statement to Jewish Insider, Filler-Corn reiterated her support for McAuliffe: “I know Terry has the experience and determination we need to move Virginia forward into a stronger, more equitable future,” she said.  

Born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., McAuliffe found success as an entrepreneur, at various points working in real estate, telecommunications and banking. His political career began in fundraising, and he brought in hundreds of millions of dollars for former President Bill Clinton as chairman of Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign. McAuliffe’s first foray into electoral politics was an unsuccessful run for governor in 2009. The Democratic candidate ultimately lost in a landslide in what was later seen as a precursor to the Tea Party wave that swept congressional Democrats out of power the next year. 

McAuliffe was elected governor in 2013, a year that Republicans in Virginia’s House of Delegates did not give up a single seat. The GOP retained control of Virginia’s General Assembly through McAuliffe’s entire term.   

“Democrats generally recognize that he sort of tilled the ground for a lot of things that happened immediately when he left office, because Republicans simply didn’t want to give him a win,” said Kidd. McAuliffe spent his term trying to expand Medicaid in the state, which Republicans opposed. His successor, Ralph Northam, signed a Medicaid expansion into law in 2018, less than three months after McAuliffe left office. 

“It’s just my impression that Terry’s success, when he had a majority in neither house of the Virginia state legislature, was remarkable,” said Moline, who served as co-chair of the Commonwealth Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that McAuliffe formed after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville in August 2017.

Terry McAuliffe

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (U.S. Air Force)

Still, some Democrats from more conservative parts of the state are concerned that McAuliffe’s policy positions have moved too far to the left in an effort to satisfy the party’s progressive base at the expense of winning over moderate Republicans.

“They’re all trying to be as progressive as they can,” said Jody Wagner, who served as state treasurer of Virginia in the early 2000s and later served in the cabinet of now-Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) when he was governor. “I’m a little concerned about that, because I think when it comes to the general election, we’re going to need to be more moderate and more business-friendly,” said Wagner, a small business owner who ran unsuccessfully for Virginia Beach mayor as a Democrat in 2020. 

Wagner mentioned her support for right-to-work, the law that prevents unions from forcing employees to pay dues — a policy that has often been seen as hurting organized labor. Carter, the socialist candidate for governor, introduced a bill to overturn right-to-work that was blocked by Democratic House leadership earlier this year.

But Kidd told JI that McAuliffe was always seen as a progressive — or at the very least, a major departure from previous Virginia Democrats. “McAuliffe’s victory in Virginia was kind of a watershed for Democrats, in the sense that McAuliffe was the first guy to run for governor, the first person ever probably in Virginia to run for governor, who essentially ran on a pro-gun control platform,” Kidd said. (Gov. Doug Wilder signed a gun control measure in 1993, limiting Virginians to one handgun purchase per month.)

Even if Democrats nationwide have strongly supported gun reform for a long time, the issue took longer to resonate in Virginia, which has a strong Second Amendment culture and is home to the headquarters of the National Rifle Association. “People thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s no way that you can win Virginia if you’re going to run on a pro-gun control platform, and you’re going to tout your F-rating from the NRA.’ Lo and behold, he won,” Kidd said.

Early polling shows McAuliffe running ahead of the Democratic pack, though nearly half of surveyed Democratic voters remain undecided, according to a poll released by Christopher Newport University last month. McAuliffe earned 26% to 12% for Fairfax, and 4% each for Foy and McClellan. Carter was polling at 1%. 

Aside from McAuliffe’s strong name recognition with voters, Kidd said he has another advantage: the fact that he served as something of a “surrogate governor” for Virginia Democrats on the 2019 campaign trail, when candidates wanted to steer clear of Northam, who at the time was dealing with a blackface scandal. “McAuliffe has a reservoir of good feelings among the Democratic base,” Kidd explained, because of the work he put in that year when Democrats took the Senate and ultimately regained control of the General Assembly.

One of the key issues for McAuliffe’s campaign is education — specifically, increasing teacher pay, expanding STEM instruction, and ensuring that children have equal access to education. But an issue that has dogged Virginia Democrats is the question of reopening schools that have remained shuttered during the COVID-19 crisis. Teachers unions have urged Democrats not to rush on reopening, and legislators passed a bill mandating that schools open by July 1, after this school year ends. Northam urged schools to reopen this week, but many opted to do so for just a couple days a week. 

Republicans running for governor have touted their support for reopening schools as early as last summer, and they have criticized McAuliffe and the other Democratic candidates for not demanding an immediate reopening of schools. 

“We need to open the schools as quickly as possible, and as safely as possible,” McAuliffe told JI. When pressed for details about what that timeline should look like, he said the decision is in Northam’s hands: “Governor Ralph Northam — he’s looking at all the data. I’m not sitting here with the data,” McAuliffe said, adding that when he takes office, the schools will already be open. “Next year, I think schools will all be open. I think they’ll be open this September.”

Ultimately, despite the Democratic field’s historic diversity, Kidd predicts that the race will come down to “two white guys running — and not only that, too, all things being equal, kind of moderate- to pro-business white guys.” The Republican field is currently being led by State Sen. Amanda Chase, a self-described “Trump in heels,” with former Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox and businessmen Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin running behind. But because Republicans are using ranked-choice balloting, the candidate who wins the plurality of votes doesn’t become the nominee. “It’s pretty clear that Amanda Chase has a solid 20, 25% support,” Kidd said. “But it isn’t clear that she’s a lot of people’s second choice.”

McAuliffe is attempting to appeal to a range of voters: “I have a very progressive record. I have a very pro-jobs record,” he told JI. Even if his strategy works in June, the question is whether it will work in November.

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