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Can a primary be bought?

    It’s a question that gets asked from time to time.  Is it really possible to “buy” an election?  
    There is plenty of evidence that money, whether it’s the result of good fundraising, or tapping a personal fortune, can do wonders for a candidate’s political prospects.  But can it really change the outcome of an election?  Right now, in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, that question is being put to the test.  Terry McAuliffe, until just a few months ago, was a complete outsider to Virginia politics.  But starting just after the 2008 election he has unleashed a daunting national fundraising effort and has launched an ambitious campaign for the Democratic nomination for Governor.  Its scale, in a primary campaign, is almost unprecedented in Virginia politics.  According to the most recent financial disclosures, his fundraising prowess leaves his opponents in the dust.  During the first three months of this year McAuliffe raised a staggering $5.2 million while former Delegate Brian Moran raised $800,000 and State Senator Creigh Deeds (Deeds wasn’t allowed to raise money while the legislature was in session) $600,000.   That’s better than a five-to-one advantage over his nearest opponent.  This primary looks like it will be the ultimate test of whether or not an election can be bought.
     McAuliffe was, at least until recently, an outsider when it comes to Virginia politics.  He took almost no interest in the goings on of the Commonwealth.  He has never held elective office in Virginia, and for that matter, has never been actively involved in Virginia politics.  He has lived in Virginia for years, but his focus, with his residence in McLean, was always on the goings on of political Washington, not Richmond.  McAuliffe served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and most notably, was a longtime friend and fundraiser for President and Mrs. Clinton.  He is also a highly successful businessman with a considerable fortune of his own.  He may not have ties in Virginia, and he has been an easy target for the label of carpetbagger, but he is also no slouch.  Even with his liabilities he is a formidable contender.
     Just what propelled McAuliffe to run for Governor still isn’t entirely clear, but it almost doesn’t matter.  He is clearly giving it everything he’s got.  However, for all the money he can bring to bear, and this includes 10 campaign offices statewide, and nearly 100 staffers, the question remains.  At this late stage in the campaign can he pull together enough Democratic support to win the primary?  Both of McAuliffe’s opponents have been traveling Virginia for years now.  They have gone to coffees, have helped local candidates for everything from Sheriff to Delegate and have gotten to know the rank and file.  In the process they have piled up lots of IOU’s.  Moran and Deeds both have been just a phone call away for Democratic chairs and campaign managers who wanted a statewide figure at an event.  And until recently, if they knew him at all, to most Democrats McAuliffe was a distant national figure.
     But it would be a mistake to consider McAuliffe as having been completely disinterested in Virginia politics.  In 2005 he played a decisive role in making sure that Tim Kaine, then in a tight race with Mark Early, got an extra $5 million from the National Party.  Make no mistake it made a big difference.  Kaine is staying neutral, but a lot of people, no matter what they think of this race, or McAuliffe, are still grateful for the help.
     The Primary is just a little over two months away and according to the most recent poll it’s still an extremely fluid election.  Brian Moran, for most of the campaign viewed as the frontrunner, has 22% of the vote.  McAuliffe has 18% and Deeds 15%.  The rest of the voters, a staggering 45% haven’t made up their minds yet.  This means it’s wide open and for McAuliffe offers some possibilities.  Because he has the ability through paid phone banking, TV ads, and sophisticated internet (borrowing on President Obama’s efforts) to reach the parties liberal base (the ones most likely to turn out in a primary) his fundraising advantage might make a big difference.
     There is also a school of thought that whoever wins will face the well funded Republican nominee former Attorney General Bob McDonnell in the fall.  McAuliffe’s almost unlimited treasury would be an advantage.  However, there are some sobering points to make in countering this argument.  McAuliffe, though personally likeable and energetic, has absolutely no experience in elective office or large scale government management.  Bob McDonnell will almost certainly make this a major campaign theme.
    However, at the moment, the contest isn’t about November.  It’s about who can motivate the Democratic Primary voters in June.  Right now, McAuliffe’s money is a definite advantage, and though it might not buy him an election, it might be enough for a primary.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

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