The Race That Defined Hillary’s Strategy
How Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for governor of Virginia was a dummy run for 2016.
On Friday, Hillary Clinton will return to Virginia, her first official visit to the Commonwealth since 2013, when she headlined a rally for Terry McAuliffe, a longtime friend vying to become governor.
But Virginia has a hold on Hillary.
That’s because the playbook for Clinton to win the presidency in 2016 was written in that race, which saw McAuliffe eke out a closer than expected victory against Ken Cuccinelli, the sitting attorney general and a hero to Virginia tea partiers.
Many of the same people that carried McAuliffe to victory are trying to do the same for Clinton. There is Robby Mook, Clinton’s well-regarded campaign manager. Josh Schwerin, who works on rapid response out of Brooklyn, served as McAuliffe’s press secretary. The campaign’s political director, field director and research director have all found jobs with Team Clinton.
And many of the operatives who battled against them have gone on to the various Republican campaigns vying for the chance to take on Clinton. Danny Diaz, a senior strategist for Cuccinelli, was recently named Jeb Bush’s campaign manager. Chris LaCivita, another top aide, is now helping lead Rand Paul’s campaign. Wesley Donehue, who ran Cuccinelli’s digital operation, is close to Marco Rubio.
Now, Team Clinton is set to take the strategy that won them a medium-sized state in a low-turnout, off-year election, and take it national, while Republicans are poring over that same playbook and looking for holes.
Every campaign is unique, but McAuliffe in 2013 faced, and Clinton in 2015 faces, a similar set of challenges. Back then, McAuliffe was trying to come back from an embarrassing defeat in a Democratic primary four years earlier, much as Clinton is now.
McAuliffe was a longtime front-person for the Clinton operation, and so he was relatively well known among voters. In order to reintroduce him to Virginians, the campaign embarked on a low-key listening tour of the forgotten corners of the state, where McAuliffe heard voter concerns while scribbling notes—much as Clinton did with her campaign rollout this spring.
“I think you see a lot of similarities,” said one Republican who worked on the race. “McAulifffe was a Democrat who was trying to run a, ‘Oh, just ignore my political past, ignore my scandal, ignore all of the background noise,’ a lot like Clinton is trying to do now. And whoever the Republican is is going to have the same kind of ideological edge that Ken had.”
And, like McAuliffe, Clinton faces historical headwinds. For four decades, Virginia had followed a pattern of electing as governors someone from the party that had lost White House the year before; McAuliffe broke that pattern.
Clinton’s team, meanwhile, acknowledges that one of her biggest hurdles will be overcoming the pattern of voters looking to a new party for leadership after two terms in the White House by the opposing party.
Both trends are not merely historical oddities, strategists say, but evidence that voters are often looking for change and tire quickly of the ruling party. If ties to Obama could prove problematic for Clinton, the botched rollout of the Obamacare website—a law, it should be noted, that McAuliffe loudly championed—nearly finished McAuliffe.
To counteract the gathering clouds of bad news, the McAuliffe operation put a premium on data and organizing. It’s much the same with Clinton now, who has pledged to put organizers in every state and who is counting on a data operation that surpasses even the sophistication of what the Obama team put together in 2012.
“I don’t think Republicans realize yet how we are able to get turnout in places that are favorable to us,” said one veteran of the race.
McAuliffe avoided a primary (not unlike Clinton, who is so far avoiding a competitive one) but still took strikingly liberal positions on social issues regardless. This is proof, Democratic veterans of his campaign say, that the center of the electorate is shifting rapidly away from the Republicans.
Clinton is trying the same strategy, staking out liberal positions on gay rights, immigration, the economy, and the environment with the belief that the center of the electorate is far closer to the Democratic base on these matters.
But the governor’s race was not one in which the Democrats touted McAuliffe much; rather, they made the race all about Cuccinelli, an unabashed conservative who bragged of his record of suing the federal government and who opposed gay marriage and abortion. This did not make for a particularly joyful campaign, with Time magazine branding it “The Dirtiest, Nastiest, Low-Down Campaign in America.”
“What is significant is that McAuliffe was able to win it even with pretty low turnout, and he did it because the Republicans gave him a far-right candidate and he was relentless on the social issues,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “This is a transferable issue in 2016, and one that Republicans are vulnerable on, no question about it.”
McAullife, he added, was merely “the non-Cuccinelli on the ballot. And if Hillary Clinton wins, it is for the same reason that McAuliffe wins—not because they are exciting or because people love them but because they are the other guy on the ballot.”
Although Cuccinelli lost by a little over two points, Republicans say that he outperformed expectations. Polls in the final weeks of the race had Cuccinelli down by close to ten. He was outspent by $15 million, and swamped on the airwaves in the race’s final weeks.
But Republicans from around the country have highlighted an exit poll that showed him beating McAuliffe among voters age 18-24. Republicans say this is proof that the youngest cohort of the millennial generation is less focused on social issues and less likely to vote Democratic when Obama is not on the ballot.
But it wasn’t enough. And the main lesson Republicans took from the near-upset hold has to do with the primary. Cuccinelli became the GOP nominee after conservatives grabbed hold of the nominating process and elbowed aside a far more mainstream alternative. A very winnable race became a loss after Cuccinelli never attempted to try to bridge the party’s divide.
What Republicans should learn from the race is to make sure they “get a better candidate,” said Tom Davis, a Republican former Congressman from the northern part of the state.
“We had a lot of advantages in that contest, but Republicans keep doing too good of a job of bringing out the Democratic base.”