VIRGINIA-POLITICS

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, shown during the inauguration of Gov. Ralph Northam in January 2018, says he won't be running for president in 2020. 

RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia Democrats cheered and Republicans lobbed their sharpest "T-Mac" barbs Thursday in response to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe's decision to forgo a White House bid and devote the next year to turning the General Assembly blue.

"It really doesn't get much better than Terry raising money," said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, adding that other Democrats she has spoken with share her excitement. "Terry has been very popular with Virginians . . . so it makes it very easy for him to step into this role."

McAuliffe, who had been considering a presidential bid at least since leaving the Executive Mansion 15 months ago, announced late Wednesday that he would not run.

He said his decision was based in part on the predicament of home-state Democrats, who seemed on the cusp of seizing control of the legislature until McAuliffe's successor, Gov. Ralph Northam, and two other top Democrats were swallowed by scandal.

McAuliffe says he will serve as campaigner in chief for Democrats running for the state House and Senate, assuming a leadership role that Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring normally would have fulfilled.

Northam and Herring admitted in February to wearing blackface as young men, and two women have accused Fairfax of sexual assault years ago - assertions he has vigorously denied. All three remain in office, but they have struggled to move past the controversies.

Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, said McAuliffe, a prolific fundraiser with close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, could provide a range of help to Democrats. "It can be anything from just helping candidates on the ground, firing up people before they knock on doors, our fundraising efforts," she said. "When he says he's all in, believe it."

Republicans said they were excited, too - for the chance to revive old attacks on McAuliffe, who as an entrepreneur mixed business and politics in ways that sometimes raised eyebrows and led to investigations.

"If anyone thinks that the Clintons' bagman is going to be the savior for Virginia Democrats, they must be really desperate," said Chris LaCivita, a GOP operative who worked against McAuliffe's 2013 gubernatorial bid.

One race that will likely be a top priority for McAuliffe is the contest in which Democrat Dan Helmer is seeking to unseat Republican Del. Tim Hugo in an increasingly moderate district that straddles Fairfax and Prince William counties.

The 2017 blue wave left Hugo the lone Republican state delegate in northern Virginia after he defeated a Democratic challenger by 96 votes.

This year, his race with Helmer has drawn the most money of any state contest, with Hugo raising $162,000 since January and Helmer bringing $124,000 since January.

Democrats need to flip two seats in the House to win control; they are also two seats shy of a majority in the Senate.

Helmer, a former Army intelligence officer, said McAuliffe is "going to be a great contributor." He added that he expects Democrats from across the country to get involved as well, because that Virginia is the only state in the country where control of the legislature is likely to be decided in fall elections.

Hugo countered that he's not worried, noting that he won by 20 points in 2013, the same year McAuliffe became governor. "I'm going to work hard, run on my record, and we'll win," Hugo said.

Virginia is the only state where sitting governors cannot run for reelection.

Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University's Wason Center on Public Policy, said McAuliffe would have faced an uphill climb in a crowded presidential primary election in a year when Democratic voters appear to be looking for a more liberal nominee.

He also noted that if McAuliffe harbors ambitions of running for governor again in 2021, it would serve him well to be perceived as a savior for Democrats this year. McAuliffe has declined to discuss his future ambitions.

"Our polling has shown and the fundraising numbers are showing that the statewide leadership is really struggling right now," Kidd said. "He has an opportunity to help save it in some ways."

Republicans concede that McAuliffe's decision will likely mean more money for Democrats. But they also seized on his involvement as an opportunity to launch a new round of jabs at Democratic politicians, and as a sign of profound weakness for the party.

"T-Mac will do a great job bringing in gobs of shady special interest money, which most Dem candidates claim to hate," John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said in an email, using an old nickname for the former governor.

"McAuliffe can't change the facts: Governor Blackface refuses to appear in public because he is so despised," Findlay continued. "Democrats are preventing Justin Fairfax's accusers from having a public hearing. The fact Democrats think they will be saved by a failed presidential candidate is truly pitiful."

Republicans have not won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009. And President Donald Trump's unpopularity helped Democrats make inroads into previously red suburbs, picking up 15 House of Delegates seats in 2017. Republicans hung on to control by after a name pulled out of bowl settled a tied race.

That momentum may have changed with the scandals that erupted in February.

The party's troubles were on McAuliffe's mind a week ago, after a Planned Parenthood dinner put on by his wife, former first lady Dorothy McAuliffe.

The McAuliffes had invited Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker to spend the night at their McLean home. In the pool house that has been the site of many a Democratic fundraiser, dressed in pajamas and robes, the three of them stayed up until 4 a.m., talking about many things - but always coming back to what could be done to help Virginia Democrats.

McAuliffe said it was that conversation - coupled with the news a few days later that Northam had skipped a fundraiser that drew protesters, and that he, Fairfax and Herring had raised little money since the scandals - that convinced him not to run for the White House.

"I think we all know where we are and what the situation is," Swecker said in an interview Thursday. "It's time for all hands on deck, because this is an incredibly pivotal and important election."

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