By Aaron Blake - 06/10/09 07:46 PM EDT
The strikingly poor performance by Terry McAuliffe in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Virginia governor likely puts an end to his days as a political candidate.
While consultants and political observers expect McAuliffe to continue to play an important role as a behind-the-scenes political operative and world-beating fundraiser, he can probably forget about running for elected office in the future.
The loss comes a year after the former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman was unable to guide front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton to the party’s presidential nomination.
On paper, McAuliffe had everything going for him except home-state roots. Perhaps the most affable person in politics, he rode a huge financial advantage and big-name support to a substantial lead in the polls with less than a month to go.
By the final debate, held in mid-May, both former state Del. Brian Moran and state Sen. Creigh Deeds — but mostly Moran — were attacking him like the front-runner he was, hoping to knock him down.
They succeeded, and Deeds was in a better position to fill the void. In the end, he won the primary with a shockingly high 50 percent, while McAuliffe was a distant second at 26.
The pollster that came closest to predicting Tuesday’s result, Public Policy Polling, showed McAuliffe up as many as 10 points last month. That made Tuesday’s result a 34-point swing.
McAuliffe broke onto the national political scene in his early 20s as national finance director for then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. He has been involved in all manner of Democratic politics since then, eventually ascending to DNC chairman in 2001 and becoming Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman last year.
In an interview with The Hill, Deeds tactfully suggested that voters and activists had buyer’s remorse with McAuliffe.
He credited McAuliffe’s ability to fill a room and energize people, but suggested that, once Virginians got beneath the surface, they went with a Virginian.
“I’ve had people call me up and say they endorsed McAuliffe but were going to vote for me, that they made a mistake,” Deeds said, adding: “I know Virginia. Virginia knows me. I’ve been on the political scene for a long time.”
Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a former National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) chairman, said the writing was on the wall for McAuliffe’s drop and Deeds’s ascent.
“If you had told me a month ago this was going to happen, I’d say you’re crazy,” Davis said. “But you could see it in the last two weeks.”
McAuliffe’s campaign had all the pop and fizzle of a self-funded effort. He entered the race late, threw gobs of money at it and wound up being branded an outsider with little governing experience trying to buy his way into office.
“The more he talked about [Sen. Mark] Warner [D] and [Gov. Tim] Kaine [D], the more people realized they too were people who had little contact with Virginia before they came here as adults,” said former state GOP Chairman Patrick McSweeney.
Governor’s-race analyst Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report said McAuliffe’s early advertising made him out to be something of a “used-car salesman” and that he and Moran made a costly strategic mistake by underestimating Deeds.
Moran began by attacking McAuliffe, and when McAuliffe came back to earth, the two went at each other, with little regard for the understated and under-funded Deeds.
“Deeds didn’t need to match either of them dollar for dollar; he needed just enough to be competitive, and he had that,” Duffy said. “This is hardly a new phenomenon in primaries. It’s just a lesson that consultants seem to have a hard time learning.”
By Wednesday, political leaders from both sides of the aisle were praising Deeds as the superior candidate in the race.
GOP Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) told ABC News that Deeds represented the “toughest candidate” the Democrats could have put up.
Sen. Jim Webb, who won a tough Democratic primary in the commonwealth three years ago, likened his own campaign to Deeds’s.
“McAuliffe really spent an enormous amount of money and had an organization that was tops; you had Brian Moran, who had very much of a Northern Virginia strategy, but he was way too far to the left; and then Deeds came in with not much money and really hustled,” Webb said.
Asked for a reason why McAuliffe couldn’t pull it out, Webb said: “People just have a way of making up their minds about things like this.”
McAuliffe did not comment for this article.
Another lesson is that it’s not always easy to transition between behind-the-scenes politico to candidate.
McDonnell campaign Chairman Ed Gillespie, who was McAuliffe’s counterpart at the Republican National Committee (RNC), declined to assess McAuliffe’s campaign but noted that the chairman-to-governor path has been paved before.
“Haley Barbour did it,” Gillespie said of the RNC chairman-turned-Mississippi governor.
McAuliffe raised $7 million for the race and spent nearly $6 million by late May, with much help from former President Clinton himself.
Moran attacked McAuliffe during the primary for being a part of a Clinton campaign machinery that ran the “3 a.m.” ad questioning President Obama’s readiness on national security.
Duffy said the Clinton affiliation didn’t help, but that the result belongs to McAuliffe.
“I don’t think this says much about the Clinton legacy,” she said. “Diehard Obama supporters were always wary of McAuliffe.”
J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.