Gov. Terry McAuliffe is “seriously” considering running for president, according to “confidants” quoted in The Hill, a political newspaper covering Washington. There once was a time when such a story would have sent Virginia political commentators all a-twitter. That, of course, was before there was an actual thing called Twitter.
For years, political types breathlessly followed then-Gov. Charles Robb, convinced the Democrat would run for president. He never did.
George Allen was considered a potential Republican contender, until the U.S. senator blurted out a certain word that’s considered an ethnic slur and suddenly wasn’t a senator anymore.
When Bob McDonnell was governor, he was sized up as a potential Republican candidate — until he found himself being sized up for prison clothes (a conviction later thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court). So the idea of a Virginia politician thinking about running for president isn’t really new anymore. We’ve actually had four actually do it, and none of their campaigns went very far.
Then-Gov. Douglas Wilder was a national curiosity when he briefly sought the Democratic nomination in 1992, but dropped out before voting began. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner toyed with running for president in 2008 but never got beyond the exploration stage. Former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb made it through just one Democratic debate in the run-up to the 2016 campaign; he dropped out exactly a week later. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore didn’t even register as a blip on the national radar screen when he sought the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2016 but at least he lasted long enough to get to the voting stage last year. He won precisely 12 votes in the Iowa caucuses; 133 in the New Hampshire primary.
Given that history of false starts and flame-outs, is there any reason to think this Virginia politician will fare any better? Sure. McAuliffe could probably get more than 12 votes in Iowa. The bar is set pretty low.
In and of itself, somebody with “governor of Virginia” on their resume isn’t going to impress anyone. The real question is whether this soon-to-be former Virginia governor could be a serious contender in 2020? Let’s look at the pros and cons. (Republican readers will have to momentarily think like Democrats here if they want to properly assess McAuliffe in the context of a Democratic field.)
On the plus side: Democrats have a completely open field, unlike last time when Hillary Clinton stood in the way. At this point, lots of Democrats could envision a path to victory. McAuliffe also is not some unknown. As a former national party chairman, he has connections. He’s also has a track record of raising money. Lots of it. That’s kind of a big deal. Those are two key attributes that many other contenders don’t have.
On the minus side: There are a lot of better-known possibilities out there. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is looking like a candidate again. Former Vice President Joe Biden might run. They’re both in their 70s, so don’t exactly represent “new faces,” but they start with a lot of firepower.
Given what’s been happening lately, there’s likely a strong market in Democratic circles for a woman — and the party has four potential female candidates in U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. There are at least two other potential candidates, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, both African-American. Those are eight names right there, and those are just the conventional choices. Donald Trump’s success shows we may not be limited to just present or former officeholders.
How would McAuliffe make himself stand out against some of those candidates? We can think of three ways, but two of them don’t help him.
n McAuliffe is close to the Clintons, but that may no longer be an asset in Democratic circles. In fact, it’s likely to be a handicap. McAuliffe also comes with other baggage. Virginia voters didn’t seem to care much about the Green Tech debacle in 2013, or at least didn’t consider that as terrible as the prospect of Ken Cuccinelli in the governor’s office. Out-of-state voters may feel differently. Then again, Trump may have changed what qualifies as “baggage.”
n The political terrain is also shifting further left; McAuliffe is not that kind of Democrat. He’s a more conventional pro-business Democrat who relishes talking about how much investment has come to the state during his tenure. No matter how much McAuliffe talks up his record on promoting solar energy, environmentalists will not like hearing about his support for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley natural gas pipelines. A Democrat who has inspired environmentalists to march against him does not sound like someone who can win the party’s presidential nomination in 2020.
n The one thing McAuliffe has in his favor in a Democratic contest is one of the qualities that Virginia Republicans find so distasteful about him: His personality. Republicans see a huckster; Democrats might see a fighter, a brawler. Democrats pine for a champion. They want a candidate who exudes passion. McAuliffe’s got that box checked, several times over. Virginia Republicans see McAuliffe as a showboater —his attempt to grant a blanket restoration of civil rights to convicted felons stands as example number one. For Democrats, that kind of grand gesture might send tingles down their spine.
To be clear: We don’t think McAuliffe will be his party’s presidential nominee in 2020. Then again, who thought Trump would be his party’s nominee last time?
McAuliffe cuts a profile Democrats may want to consider seriously: Here’s a Democrat who can point to a record of creating jobs. (Yes, yes, we know McAuliffe didn’t personally create those jobs; businesses did, but they came under his watch as governor so for political purposes he gets to claim them.) That’s not something Sanders can claim. It’s not something Biden can claim. It’s not something any of the senators can claim. It’s only something that McAuliffe and Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, can claim. It’s entirely possible that McAuliffe is the kind of candidate who could run well in some of the Rust Belt states that proved so problematic for Clinton last time. In other words, there’s a chance, however small, he could be a winner. That’s why he’ll run.