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Flash, cash, crash

The downfall of a well-heeled Clinton buddy

When I heard last night that Terry McAuliffe - the legendary Democratic money man, former national party chairman, and longtime Clinton buddy - had been decisively trounced in the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary, I couldn't help but remember the story about Terry and the alligator.

True story: Back in the mid-1980s, when young McAuliffe was already cementing his reputation as a fundraising wunderkind with an unparalleled gusto for greenbacks, he met up in Florida with a group of Seminole Indians. They had money, and he was determined to get some of it flowing to the Democratic party. So he made them a deal, one that was more unique than his usual deals for money. He offered to wrestle an alligator. (There was such a creature in the vicinity, and it weighed roughly 260 pounds.) The deal was that if he wrestled it with some modicum of success, the Seminole Indians would have to fork over $15,000. So he did the gig, and they paid up to the Democratic party.

I cite this episode because it gives us a flavor for McAuliffe's outsize personality and dealmaking, his determination to network far and wide at all costs - the same kinds of traits that ultimately helped doom him last night, in his failed bid to enter elective politics and become Virginia's Democratic candidate for governor in 2009.

It's certainly true that Virginia has recently been trending blue - it voted for Barack Obama in 2008, elected Jim Webb to the Senate in 2006, and elected two Democrats in succession for the governor's job - but there's something about McAuliffe that seemed woefully ill-suited for that state. His personality is too flashy, he flashed too much money, and on the trail he flaunted his farflung national political friendships. Even though McAuliffe and his family have lived in Northern Virginia for years, he came off during the primary campaign like a national heavyweight in search of a launching pad. In short, he looked like a carpetbagger who had parachuted into Podunk.

We all generally bemoan the notion that well-financed candidates can virtually buy their way into office. But quite often, the opposite occurs; candidates with lots of money often lose, simply because they seem to be about nothing except their money. (For instance, California is a notorious boneyard. GOP voters have recently rejected three wealthy businessmen who wanted to become governor: Al Checchi in 1998, Bill Simon in 2002, and Steve Westly in 2006.) McAuliffe actually tried to be substantive, at one point offering a detailed plan to pull Virginia out of recession, but there was something about the size of his war chest that turned off the Virginia voters.

Bottom line: He raised roughly $7 million for his primary bid, tapping his network of big-shot national donors, and in the end three-quarters of his money came from out of state. That tab is more than double the amount raised by Creigh Deeds, the rural state senator who wound up winning the primary last night. Deeds raised only $2.83 million - yet he waxed McAuliffe in the vote tally by a margin of roughly two to one.

Money isn't everything, particularly when it winds up looking like a negative character trait. AFSCME, the public employe union, gave McAuliffe $600,000 - which may have been a perceptual asset had McAuliffe been running for office in a northern state (such as his native New York), but Virginia is not exactly union-friendly and many Virginians who vote Democratic tend to be wary of anything that smacks of the traditional liberal label.

Moreover, McAuliffe was essentially trying to sell himself as a highly connected guy. Donald Trump gave him money. Ed Rendell did a video endorsement. Democratic Gov. Brian Sweitzer of Montana flew in, and hit the trail with the candidate. (Were Virginians supposed to know who Sweitzer was, or care?) Bill Clinton hit the trail, too. McAuliffe clearly thought that Bill was an asset, because he kept saying at rallies, "Look, I know Bill Clinton!"

And that was supposed to impress Virginians? Those voters rejected Bill Clinton in the '92 presidential election and again in '96. And since last night's low primary turnout was by definition dominated by those most knowledgeable and motivated about politics, it's a fair bet that many remembered McAuliffe's role as a key player in some of the seamiest '90s money-raising episodes. After all, it was his idea to rent out the Lincoln Bedroom to high rollers, and to sell face time with Clinton. And although he was never charged with any wrongdoing, his name repeatedly surfaced in connection with an illegal money-laundering scheme involving the Teamsters and the Democratic National Committee in 1996.

Indeed, it's significant that McAuliffe began to free fall in the polls when the third candidate in the Democratic field, Brian Moran, began to air ads attacking McAuliffe's long history of corporate dealmaking ("working insider deals for himself"). As often happens in three-way races, the ads hurt the target (McAuliffe) as well as the attacker (Moran), with Creigh Deeds benefiting on the rebound.

All told, McAuliffe seemed too closely linked to the "national" Democratic party (particularly the pre-Obama brand that never played well in Virginia) - whereas Virginians, characteristically, preferred someone a tad more home grown. Hence, Deeds the underdog.

Moreover, Obama's political lieutenants are probably relieved that McAuliffe lost. They realize that, fairly or not, the impending November gubernatorial election will be framed in the national media as some kind of referendum on Obama specifically and Democratic fortunes generally, so they might as well be grateful that the more electable guy got the nomination. For starters, Deeds is perceived as more politically moderate than McAuliffe.

Facing off against Republican Bob McConnell, Deeds will win the heavily Democratic vote in Northern Virginia just as McAuliffe would have - but, as an unflashy rural guy (he hails from the second smallest county in the state), he'll perform far better than McAuliffe in rural western and southwestern Virginia, areas that have recently proved pivotal for successful Democratic candidates such as Webb, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine.

Besides, the Obama people will probably be relieved that they won't have to dispatch Obama across the Potomac to stump for a Clinton buddy who chaired Hillary's primary campaign and spent much of last year on TV assailing Obama. Win or lose in 2009, at least Obama won't have to wrestle that particular alligator.


In a column five weeks ago, I referred to the GOP as the Older White Guy Party. Well, this is precisely what I was talking about:

For the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, Americans were asked to identify the person who speaks for the Republicans today. The top five "winners" were Rush Limbaugh (cited by 13 percent),  Dick Cheney, John McCain, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush.

Leaving aside the embarrassing fact that 52 percent of Americans couldn't even name anybody, and leaving aside the fact that the plurality winner is a radio demagogue, it's mostly worth noting the key trait shared by those top five finishers.

They're all older white guys.

Ed Rollins, the veteran party strategist, put it best when he said that, as Republicans, "we're in the basement of a 100-story building."