Terry McAuliffe Under Romney-esque Attack in Virginia Race for Governor

Beth Reinhard
National Journal

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic front-runner in the Virginia gubernatorial race, once made an outlandish claim that would make Mitt Romney cringe.

At a debate during his failed 2009 campaign, McAuliffe declared he “created over 100,000 jobs—good-paying jobs with benefits and good wages. That’s what I’ll do as governor.” A Democratic rival scoffed that McAuliffe apparently had created more jobs than Microsoft's Bill Gates.

McAuliffe’s campaign on Wednesday did not respond directly to questions about whether he stands by the 100,000 jobs—the same number Republican presidential nominee Romney struggled to defend in the 2012 campaign. And in what looks like a reprise of the successful Democratic attacks on Romney, McAuliffe’s business experience is expected to be fodder for a full-blown, multimillion-dollar Republican opposition machine this year, led by party front-runner Ken Cuccinelli and likely backed by conservative super PACs such as the newly formed America Rising.

Whether the flipped script starring Republican attacks on a Democrat’s lucrative business career will stick is one of the biggest questions looming over the marquee campaign in the country in 2013.

McAuliffe is still pitching himself as a job creator, though he apparently hasn’t repeated the 100,000 figure and quietly resigned as chairman of the GreenTech electric car company that he once boasted would employ 900 people. (The company has yet to build a manufacturing plant.) Cuccinelli’s campaign is assailing McAuliffe’s departure from GreenTech in December in an online ad, in addition to pointing to his $8 million profit from a telecommunications company called Global Crossing that laid off 10,000 employees when it went bust.

"Terry McAuliffe has demonstrated a consistent pattern of misleading Virginians, whether it's resigning from GreenTech in the stillness of the night, or claiming he has created 100,000 jobs,” said Anna Nix, a Cuccinelli spokeswoman. “Virginians deserve to know, does McAuliffe's time at GreenTech and other failed companies represent the kind of leadership he would bring to the commonwealth?"

The line of attack has striking parallels to the 2012 presidential campaign. Romney ended up dropping his 100,000-new-jobs claim after several fact-checking media outlets said the former venture capitalist was taking credit for jobs filled long after he and others invested and that he wasn’t accounting for jobs lost. In one of the turning points of the race, the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA broadcast millions of dollars in television ads featuring forlorn employees who had been laid off from companies in which Romney’s Bain Capital had invested.

McAuliffe’s campaign dismissed the idea that his business record would be a liability and argued that Cuccinelli’s antigay, antiabortion positions as state attorney general had hurt the state’s image in the private sector.

“Rehashing worn-out attacks from four years ago won’t distract Virginians from the key difference in this race,” the campaign said in a statement. “Terry McAuliffe has spent the last four years listening to Virginians on how to make the commonwealth the best for business while Ken Cuccinelli has spent the last four years dividing Virginians with his extreme ideological agenda that makes the commonwealth less attractive for business.”

Bill Burton, a former deputy press secretary for President Obama who led Priorities USA, is also skeptical that the assault on McAuliffe’s business record will work. The anti-Romney ads were persuasive, Burton said, because his capitalist business practices lined up with his opposition to raising taxes on the rich. Romney also failed to make a strong case for his professional success before the Bain ad blitz.

“Trying to distort Terry McAuliffe’s business record can’t be as effective because he supports policies that would benefit the middle class,” Burton said. “His business record is one that he can be quite proud of, and I think he’ll do a better job telling his story than Mitt Romney ever did.”

McAuliffe’s former Democratic rival who questioned his job-creation claim, Brian Moran, said, “It didn’t stick then, and I don’t think it will work now.” Moran’s campaign adviser, Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, agreed. “I think there’s going to be resistance to four-year-old attacks on his business acumen and work ethic,” he said. “There’s a reason he’s not opposed this time. He’s got the Democratic party unified and can run a strong campaign on his business credentials.”

McAuliffe himself put his business career at the center of his campaign and rarely, if ever, mentions his tenure as a longtime Democratic fundraiser and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He’s campaigning in the mold of now-Sen. Mark Warner, a former Capitol Hill staffer, state party chairman, and venture capitalist who successfully ran for governor in 2001 as a politically moderate, job-creating businessman. “In politics and business, Terry has worked with people from all walks of life and different political backgrounds,” reads the only reference to McAuliffe’s politics on his campaign website.

It’s no wonder that McAuliffe isn’t talking about his partisanship in a swing state that backed Barack Obama in 2008, elected Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009, and reaffirmed its support for the Democratic president in 2012.

“McAuliffe’s entire narrative is that he’s not just a Washington political hack but actually a successful businessman who has created jobs, so when you have an attack that goes straight to that narrative, it’s devastating,” said Virginia-based Republican consultant Jason Miyares. “I think that line of attack is absolutely warranted.”