Terry McAuliffe campaigned as Not Ken Cuccinelli. Now, how will he govern?
Terry McAuliffe campaigned as Not Ken Cuccinelli. Now, how will he govern?

by James A. Bacon

Terry McAuliffe, the governor-elect of Virginia, has a tough job ahead of him. Democrats picked up only one seat in the House of Delegates, leaving Republicans with 66 seats, or a veto-proof majority. Most likely, he will have to work with a Republican, Mark Obenshain, in the attorney general’s office. He also has the distinction of being the first man to win Virginia’s governorship in many years, if ever, with less than a majority of votes cast. While he did edge out Republican Ken Cuccinelli by two percentage points, 52% of Virginians voted against him. And he achieved that underwhelming margin by out-spending Cuccinelli and Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis by $32 million to $19 million. He can’t even pretend to own a mandate.

It’s with good reason that McAuliffe pledged last night to provide pragmatic, bipartisan  leadership. “The truth is that this election was never a choice between Democrats and Republicans,” he said at his victory speech. “It was a choice between whether Virginia would continue the mainstream bipartisan tradition that has served us so well over the last decade.”

While McAuliffe reaches out to Republicans, he undoubtedly will be mindful also of the priorities of those who donated to him so generously. To gain insight into who will be whispering in his ear, it is useful to review where his campaign contributions came from.

The first thing that stands out from Virginia Public Access Project data, which has compiled contributions made through October 23, is that $24.4 million of McAuliffe’s $31.7 million raised came from outside the state.  Cuccinelli, by the way, was slightly more dependent upon out-of-state contributions; nearly half his money came from the Republican Governor’s Association. But the RGA was not likely to demand favors. McAuliffe’s backers will.

The green lobby. Environmentalists invested heavily in McAuliffe’s victory — $3.8 million. The biggest chunk, $1.7 million, came from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, the single biggest Virginia-based interest group. NextGen Climate Action, of San Francisco, ladled out another $1.6 million. Those contributions, coupled with a $464,000 contribution from the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, assuredly will give the environmental lobby a seat at the table. That’s good news for alternate energy and bad news for the coal industry. What it means for the smart-growth lobby, however, is anybody’s guess. That’s because….

Labor unions. Organized labor also own a big piece of McAuliffe. Unions kicked $2.9 million into McAuliffe’s campaign coffers. Aside from the Service Employees International Union, which primarily represents government workers, donations came mainly from the construction trades. That include the Laborers International Union (the guys behind the Project Labor Agreement controversy in the rail-to-Dulles project), steelworkers, painters, electricians and bricklayers. Expect McAuliffe to work out deals behind the scenes to benefit his union pals in major state construction projects.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Where does McAuliffe stand on big road construction projects such as the Charlottesville Bypass, the Bi-County Parkway and the U.S. 460 Connector that his environmentalist friends doggedly oppose? He steered clear of those issues during the campaign but there will be no ducking them in office.

It is reasonable to presume that McAuliffe, as former chairman of GreenTech, the botched electric-car start-up, is a genuine alternate-energy buff. I would expect him to vigorously pursue, for instance, wind farms off the Virginia coast, projects that would allow him to combine alternate energy with one of his other enthusiasms, big-money deal-making. Whether he will satisfy the smart growth crowd that donated so heavily to him is a very different question. I have seen no evidence from McAuliffe’s public utterances that he understands or appreciates smart growth. To the contrary, his instinct seems to be build, baby, build. If he pushes mass transit projects, the environmentalists will love him all the more. If he sticks with sprawl-inducing highways, they will be severely disappointed.

No other industry comes as close to having their hooks into McAuliffe as the green lobby and organized labor. He received major donations from wealthy financiers and lawyers, but almost all of them came from individuals, not organized groups like the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club or big labor.

Health care. One group has been notable by its low profile in the campaign — the health care sector. With a bruising battle shaping up in the upcoming General Assembly session over the expansion of Virginia’s Medicaid program, the health-care industry has a lot at stake. Indeed, the industry contributed nearly $900,000 to McAuliffe, more than twice as much as it gave to Cuccinelli. Most of the money came from individuals, however. Among corporate interests, the nursing-home sector loomed largest, with $147,000 in donations. Nursing homes would be the biggest beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion. Big Pharma contributed modest sums, presumably on the grounds that more Medicaid money will translate into more drug sales. For the most part, however, hospitals and physician organizations sat out the election.

McAuliffe campaigned mainly on being a candidate who would NOT ban abortions or discriminate against gays. As a pragmatist with few guiding principles that I can discern other than a boundless faith in government, he now faces the challenge of governing, a task for which he has demonstrated no capacity. How well he does will depend, I suspect, on whom he picks to serve with him. Keep a close eye on his key appointments. They will tell the story of the next four years.

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13 responses to “How Will McAuliffe Govern?”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Based on his record to date expect crony capitalism on steroids.

    I expect an explosion of building public infrastructure and spending public money to benefit his financial contributors who gave him boatloads of cash at the end of his campaign, most likely in return for his filling in as many parts of the Missing Links road system as possible and as proposed by the Washington Airports Task Force in 2010.

    I hope I am wrong. But I have no reason to doubt that my suspicions will prove true. After all the man said a few years back that raising money for governors campaigns was easy, since governors controlled where the roads went. Not only did he say it with approval and glee, he proved his comment true in the closing weeks of his campaign, gathering up large contributions from major land developers, including from major past Republican Fund raisers. So Virginians, particularly those out in the norther Virginia Piedmont and around Dulles, hold your hat. It’s gonna be some ride.

  2. Reed my man. Neither Obama nor McAuliffe can spend a dime unless approved by others.

    in terms of money – lets look at the Koch brothers and the NRA and be glad that Cucinelli is not going to be doing anything.

    In terms of crap shoots – I’ll take McAuliffe any day of the week over Cucinelli in terms of what each would do – from healthcare to transportation to education to women’s rights.

    The bad news is that a good 50% of Virginia is Tea Party territory and that bodes ill for the future.

    the next few years won’t really be about what McAuliffe wants – it will be about what the establishment GOP and Tea Party GOP can agree on in the GA and I predict that legislation that passes will succeed with a coalition of establishment GOP allied with Dems.

    Virginia dodged a tea party bullet – by barely.

    McAuliffe is going to be even weaker than “normal” Va govs with some possibility that we really don’t have much of a clue as to his priorities.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Larry –

      I’d be the last to know the ins and outs of how all this filters down and out through the labyrinth of Virginia politics. But I suspect that all that big Republican money from northern Virginia land developers did not go out the door at the last minute into McAuliffe’s campaign coffers to pay for anything other than the obvious. Namely for continuing McConnell’s roads building programs as exemplified its multi-modal Corridors of Statewide significance. So I expect the Democratic version of a new and unabated push for a network of building and improving roads for trucks program.

      I wonder how the Charlottesville supervisors election went to that front?

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    It is heartening to see that LarryG has learned the ins and outs of Virginia politics.

    McAuliffe, like Kaine before him, will accomplish almost nothing. Had Cuccinelli been elected, he would have accomplished way, way too much. When it comes to our incompetent state government, we should all pray for gridlock.

    McAuliffe’s tenure will depend on how he sees his future. In Virginia, the newly elected governor is a lame duck before he or she even takes office. Since you can’t run for (consecutive) re-election there is no reason to do anything notable. However, if you have political aspirations beyond being the permanent lame duck governor there may be a reason to appear to be trying.

    Let’s assume that Terry is ambitious and will want to seek some even higher office by 2017.

    1. He’ll burnish his progressive credentials by getting one of the DPVA faithful to propose gun control legislation, broader gay rights, etc. He will give speeches, wave his arms and try to get national spotlight. None of his initiatives will get through the House of Delegates. However, like Tim Kaine, he will claim that he is a tireless crusader for progressive causes.

    2. He’ll make some incremental progress where he can through executive order. He might try to extend health coverage to all gay couples employed by the state. He might demand that VDOT perform public ROI analysis for road projects. Minor but newsworthy improvements to enhance his image as a man who can govern. He will consistently try to “reach across the aisle” because that’s the image he wants people to remember. Might he get background checks at gun shows with more than 25 guns up for sale? Sure. Something minor – similar to the gun show law passed in Colorado.

    3. He will shamelessly travel the United States (and perhaps the world) promoting Virginia. This is what he likes to do, this is what he does well. He will make some progress. He is a great salesman.

    Our elected officials happily view Virginia as “the Land that Time Forgot”. There will be no major initiatives passed. Even McDonnell barely got additional transportation funding despite being a Republican with a Republican HOD and a deadlocked Senate where ties were broken by a Republican Lt Governor.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      “3. He will shamelessly travel the United States (and perhaps the world) promoting Virginia. This is what he likes to do, this is what he does well. He will make some progress. He is a great salesman.”

      Now there is a real bright spot. He could be a real success here, make a big difference, for the benefit of the state, and rightfully can real achievement.

      I would have concern with how he might implement the results however.

  4. I think if McAuliffe wants a future – he has to accomplish something meaningful or he’s just going to fade away after his term.

    I’ve never got any kind of a “bead” on what McAuiffe is really about.

    It could be that he has an agenda but is crappy about communicating it.

    but it may also be true that like the proverbial dog chasing the proverbial car – McAuiffe didn’t actually count on running against a truly horrible GOP candidate.

    However, I can safely predict that McAuliffe won’t invite the Koch boys to Richmond nor will he become a dues paying member of Alec nor will he be “investigating” professors at UVA or scaring the bejesus out of women and blacks… etc… Oh.. and while he may get himself ensnared in some funky business dealings it won’t be with a guy named Jonnie Williams.

    well anyhow.. now that McAuliffe has actually caught the car.. he has to at least pretend he’s got an agenda…


    1. DJRippert Avatar

      What did Tim Kaine accomplish? An unconstitutional transportation bill? Now he’s a US Senator.

      McAuliffe doesn’t have to do much more than avoid mistakes and look good.

  5. well no.. that was the GA… that passed the bill…

    but the NEW transportation bill has essentially the same provision in it – that allows NoVa to have an additional tax for transportation…

    and the Va Supreme Court just ruled that tolls are legitimate user fees…

    that ought to give NoVa more options… than they have now..

  6. Oh.. and DJ and others may find this useful:



  7. One of the interesting things from the above report is the amount that the locality generates in local option 1% sales tax – when then allows you to deduce how much the county generates for the .5% that the state collects for VDOT.

    In Fairfax, this amounts to about 80 million.

    not chump change.. but small potatoes in terms of transportation money.

  8. Question on labor unions ….

    Virginia is a notoriously anti-union state. Right to Work, bans on public employees like teachers unionizing. I think we’re probably one of the top ten least friendly states for unions.

    None of that changes without the General Assembly.

    So what can Terry do to deliver for the unions?

    Project Labor Agreements would make sense. His support for the big transportation bill that McDonnell signed means that the money will be flowing into construction.

    Is there anything else he could try to do through executive order?

    The push between the enviros and unions will be interesting to watch. Take a look at how LIUNA has reacted to the environmentalist opposition to Keystone. They are not pleased.

    How Terry implements the transportation bill is going to be a political hot potato. Does he please enviros? Does he please labor? Or what about the business community, which has their own set of priorities? They don’t want to see funding eaten up by PLAs and environmental review …

  9. Agree about union, enviros, etc. Only when the Gov AND the GA are aligned politically and philosophically is there potential for “delivering” for special interests that support you.

    that goes for the POTUS and Congress also.

    on the tranpo money…. someone might correct me but from what I can tell, we are going to generate about 200 million a year – to be shared across the state and to give a comparison example – the new HOT Lanes on I-95 (2 new lanes) is costing more than a billion dollars with Va in it for 400 million (I think).

    the Cville Bypass is what 300 million?

    US 460 ? 400 million in state money.

    that 200 million, I suspect is not going to make any discernible impact in most people’s existing everyday lives.

    The cheapest roads are flat land rural at about 20 million a mile. Expensive roads that go through urban developed lands or difficult terrain or water or much more expensive – can be 5 times as much.

    but what boosts maintenance costs for the state is – subdivision roads and improvements to roads to serve new commercial development – that requires new lanes and often new traffic signals. These costs grow larger every year for VDOT as the road system gets bigger and more expensive to maintain and operate and that’s why about 1/2 of the new transpo dollars are going for maintenance.

    and I sort of wonder who McAuliffe’s choice for Transportation would be and if it might be Connaughton.

  10. One of the better and thoughtful pieces written about the McAuliffe win.

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