Terry McAuliffe’s likely win in Virginia’s race for governor shows how if you want to influence politics, voting is just the start.
Our election season this year has been filled with snoozers. In all probability the people that have been hugely ahead in the polls (Bill de Blasio, Chris Christie and Cory Booker come to mind) will win on Election Day. The major outlier this fall seems to be in the race to be the next governor of Virginia. And while 11 days is a lifetime in politics, in all likelihood former Democratic National Committee chair and longtime Clinton loyalist Terry McAuliffe is going to win. If this does happen it will be a great reminder that most of the important decisions in our political system happen long before we step into the voting booth.
Terry McAuliffe is a bit of a political hack’s hack. He’s been starting (sometimes dodgy) businesses since he was 14 and working as a paid political professional since he was 22, as the national finance director of Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign no less. In the 90’s he was inside Bill Clinton’s inner circle, raising over $275 million for various Clinton causes, and was then chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2000 to 2005. Along the way there have been some questionable incidents. He once left his wife in a hospital delivery room in order to go to a party for former Washington Post writer Lloyd Grove (Terry made it back in time for the birth of Sarah Swann McAuliffe). More recently, ethical questions have been raised on McAuliffe’s forays into green technology and the fact that he usually makes a killing on business deals, even when the companies go belly up.
Why is someone with so much political baggage and who presents such an easy target… still winning? Well, to understand why people might want to vote for McAuliffe just meet his opponent Republican Ken Cuccinelli. If McAuliffe comes off as a caricature of a political hack, Cuccinelli is a caricature of a bomb-throwing unreconstructed southern politician. His list of greatest hits is pretty impressive but to name just a few he has made the bringing back of Virginia’s anti-sodomy laws (ruled unconstitutional in 2003) a personal political crusade as well as a major issue of his campaign. He’s also said it’s “amazing” that God hasn’t punished America for legalized abortion and some of his supporters have been known to tell jokes about Jews being cheap at campaign events. Add in the fact that there are lots of federal employees in Virgina that had to contend with a Republican-created shutdown earlier this month and you can see why McAuliffe might be ahead ahead in the polls.
Reading about this choice of candidates might make you think that our politics are in need of more options, perhaps third parties. Ironically though Virginia does have a libertarian candidate on the ballot this fall who is almost certainly not going to win. What this race shows is that voting is really just the last step in our entire political process. By the time you enter the voting booth your choices have really been narrowed down to whether you want a Republican or D aemocrat in the governor’s mansion. And while this is certainly an important choice, everything else has already been decided.
In fact those choices weren’t necessarily even made by the voters in primaries. They were made by activists donating time and money to candidates they support. They were decided by people encouraging, in private, others to run or not run and by the personal decisions of a number of Democratic and Republican candidates to sit this race out.
If you want to influence the choices that determine who will be on the ballot in November, you have to do things like become active in a political party, vote in a primary or give money to candidates early in the race for the nomination. If you don’t do those things then you can still matter as a citizen of a democracy who does the right thing and votes on Election Day. But this doesn’t matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Most of the really important choices have already been made at that point.
Photo by Steve Helber/AP