A group of Virginia political operatives working to lay the groundwork for a presidential run by former governor Terry McAuliffe says its biggest challenge is the reputation he built before he entered elected office.
The political action committee to draft McAuliffe into the race, TMAC 2020 PAC, was formed last October. It has spent the past few months making phone calls and targeting social media promotions at voters in both Virginia and the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
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Graham Weinschenk, the group's director of operations, said he has found McAuliffe's early support to be strongest in Virginia, where his reputation is based on the work he did as governor rather than his life as an outspoken fundraiser for the Democratic Party and close ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
"People have this idea of Terry nationally that is counter to his actions as governor," Weinschenk explained in a phone interview.
"He's not just the guy who wrestled an alligator for a donation once," he said, referencing a true story prominently featured in McAuliffe's 2007 book. "As much as I love that story personally, he has a long list of accomplishments as governor that are more important."
For people taking their first look at McAuliffe, they could also learn about the time he stopped in at a fundraiser on his way home from the hospital, leaving both his wife and newborn in the car; the time he went on television holding a bottle of Bacardi rum that he appeared to have been drinking the night before; or the time he led an electric car company called GreenTech Automotive that ended up under federal investigation.
Weinschenk acknowledged that these sorts of stories are a vulnerability, but argues that his record as governor has resonated with voters he's talked to.
"The top vulnerability we see from social media is people who aren't from Virginia have a perception of Terry based on the electric car business and his fundraising career," he said. "They're really not familiar with his policies as governor, and what he did as governor."
"I talk to them about what Terry did as governor—the voter rights restoration, the investment in K-12 education—and they come out of the call with a completely different idea of who Terry McAuliffe is," he said. "That's the work we're trying to do."
McAuliffe has yet to make a decision on whether he will run and has said that one won't come until March.
He has signaled, however, that he will run a centrist campaign if he throws his hat in the ring, positioning himself as a rational option who avoids pushing unrealistic "pie-in-the-sky" policies such as free college tuition.
"I think people are going to like him in Iowa and New Hampshire once he gets on the ground and starts talking to people," Weinschenk said. "If he decides to run, if he gets out there, people are going to be pleasantly surprised by him."