Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

PolitiFact Virginia: The McAuliffe Effect

Former Governor Terry McAuliffe at his inauguration. e
McAuliffe giving his inaugural address as Virginia governor. Craig Carper/WCVE

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe says he won’t run for president in 2020 because final touches are needed on his recoloring of Virginia.

“I’m going back. I started the mission in Virginia,” the Democrat said during an April 18  CNN interview. “It was a red state when I started. When I left, it was a blue state.”

“I started it. I need to finish it,” McAuliffe, who was governor from 2014 to 2018,” repeated a moment later.

The Associated Press  quotedMcAuliffe making a similar statement on March 19. “I took a red state and made it blue,” he said.

No doubt, Virginia partisan color has changed this century. In 2001, all three state-elected officials in Virginia government - governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general - were Republicans. The GOP controlled both General Assembly chambers, both Virginia seats in the U.S. Senate, and eight of 11 seats in the House of Representatives.

This year, Democrats hold the top three state offices, both seats in the U.S. Senate and seven of 11 in the House.

McAuliffe’s unfinished business comes this fall when all 140 General Assembly seats will be on ballots. Democrats are on the cusp of winning majorities in both chambers for the first time in 25 years, and McAuliffe wants to lead them to victory. In 2020, he wants to play a major role in preserving Virginia’s status as blue state in presidential elections, and in expanding the Democratic majority in the state’s congressional delegation.

Did all these red-to-blue changes start with McAuliffe, as the former governor likes to say?

We asked three political scientists and each was unwilling to give him that credit. They said McAuliffe’s popularity as governor and fundraising prowess has greatly helped Democrats. But they added that Virginia was already changing color when McAuliffe won.

“I think he made it bluer,” said Bob Holsworth, a political scientist with long ties to Virginia Commonwealth University.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said the state “arguably” started turning blue when it voted for Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Virginia had backed Republicans in the 10 previous presidential elections, beginning in 1968.

Obama carried the state again in 2012, starting a current streak of 11 statewide elections won by Democrats for president, U.S. senator, governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. In 2016, Virginia was the only Southern state to back Democrat Hillary Clinton for president over Republican Donald Trump.

Political scientists largely attribute the bluing to growth in the state’s three largest suburban areas: Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond. Many of the new suburbanites are white collar, college educated, and first-time Virginians.

Change has come slower in local races for the General Assembly and the U.S. House, where Republicans have had control of drawing election maps. That’s especially been an issue in Virginia’s House of Delegates, where a federal court has ordered a redrawing of the maps because of gerrymandering. Republicans have appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite the maps, the House may be on the verge of turning blue after a Democratic breakthrough in 2017 elections. Republicans lost 15 seats that year and saw their majority shrink to 51-49. One race was too close to call and decided, in the GOP’s favor, by  drawing paper from a bowl.

Democrats in 2017 also swept the statewide posts - governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general - for the second straight election. Much of the blue surge has been attributed to backlash against President Donald Trump.

“Donald Trump is the best thing that ever happened to Virginia Democrats and will play a pivotal role in their effort to flip control of the General Assembly in the fall,” said Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University.

Control of the state Senate, where Republicans hold a 21-19 majority, is also up for grabs this fall. The GOP has controlled the chamber for 16 of the last 20 years, but haven’t held more than 23 seats.

Let’s get back to McAuliffe. We decided not to place a fact-check rating on his statement because the determination of red and blue and when Virginia turned can be subjective. So can McAuliffe’s role in the change.

We asked for a response from McAuliffe and got a written statement from Jake Rubenstein, communications director for Democratic Party of Virginia. "...Terry McAuliffe's tireless commitment to the Democratic Party in Virginia and outstanding success as Governor has made Virginia a blue state. Plain and simple," he wrote. As backup, Rubenstein cited election results starting in 2013 with McAuliffe’s win for governor.

We’ll conclude with the words of Holsworth, one of our political scientists. He said McAuliffe deserves “credit for enhancing and maintaining the position of Democrats. But he can’t take credit for the trends that were in place. That’s hyperbolic.”



Terry McAuliffe,  CNN interview, April 16, 2019 (-3:55 mark).

Associated Press, “  McAuliffe says decision coming soon on 2020 run,” May 18, 2018.

Interview with Bob Holsworth, political scientist, May 2, 2019.

Interview with Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia, May 2, 2019.

Email from Rachel Bitecofer, political scientist at Christopher Newport University, <ay 2, 2019.

Email from Jake Rubenstein, communications director for the Democratic Party of Virginia, May 6, 2019.

USA Today, “  And the winner is...Republican wins after name drawn from a bowl in House race,” Jan. 4, 2018.

Related Stories