Shumlin's Democratic Governors Association Scores in Virginia | Off Message

Shumlin's Democratic Governors Association Scores in Virginia

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In his first test as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Gov. Peter Shumlin walked away from Tuesday's elections with a win and a loss. 

But the win, in Virginia's hotly contested gubernatorial race, was more significant for the DGA than the loss in New Jersey's decidedly less competitive gubernatorial match.

The DGA poured $6.5 million into the Old Dominion to support former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe's fight against Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, while it largely sat out New Jersey state Sen. Barbara Buono's uphill battle against Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

(Pictured from L to R at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill last November: DGA senior advisor Bill Lofy, Shumlin, DGA executive director Colm O'Comartun and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley)

"I am really excited we're going to have a job-creating governor in Virginia who does not embrace the radical policies of the Tea Party," Shumlin said Wednesday after a press conference in Burlington. "It's a great victory and a great victory for all of us."

These were the first gubernatorial elections the DGA has faced since Shumlin became the partisan political organization's chairman last December. While he has said he has little day-to-day, operational control over the outfit, he plays a role in setting strategy and in fundraising.

Just last week, he held meetings with potential donors during a DGA-sponsored trip to San Francisco, according to DGA spokesman Danny Kanner. Shumlin's former chief of staff, Bill Lofy, serves as a senior adviser to the DGA and as Shumlin's liaison to the organization.

But on Wednesday, the Vermont governor downplayed his own role in McAuliffe's victory, instead singing the praises of the candidate himself and those of Robby Mook — a Democratic strategist who grew up in Norwich, got his start in Vermont politics and led McAuliffe's campaign. (Seven Days profiled Mook in September.)

"The DGA invested heavily in Virginia, but really we've got to give the credit to Terry McAuliffe and our Vermont boy, Robby Mook, who managed that campaign. We trained him right here in Vermont," Shumlin said. "That was a tough campaign. It's not one, frankly, the Democrats should have won. It's the first time in 40 years that Virginia's gone with a governor of the same party as the president. So Terry McAuliffe gets the credit for talking about jobs and talking about middle class values that people care about."

In contrast to Shumlin's modesty, Kanner opined at length about the DGA's role in Virginia in a memo he sent reporters late Tuesday.

"The DGA threw our full operational strength — financial, political, and communications — behind McAuliffe," Kanner wrote. "Despite early punditry that claimed McAuliffe’s perceived vulnerabilities as a candidate would make the race difficult for Democrats to win, and an off-year electorate that traditionally skews older, whiter, more conservative, and more Republican, the DGA went all in and won."

Kanner said that of the $6.5 million the DGA invested in Virgina, $6 million went straight to McAuliffe's campaign war chest, allowing the candidate to control his own message. The Republican Governors Association, on the other hand, spent much of the $8 million it invested in the state on its own independent advertising campaign, an arrangement Kanner said led to mixed messaging.

Kanner also took the RGA to task for spending money in New Jersey, where Buono never posed a serious challenge to Christie, a popular moderate who's expected to run for president in 2016.

"Rather than providing Cuccinelli with additional resources when he did not have enough money to run television ads in Northern Virginia in the final month of the campaign, they wastefully dumped more than $1.7 million into an uncompetitive New Jersey race," Kanner wrote. "Those funds could have been used to close the gap in Virginia. For reasons passing understanding, the RGA decided against the logical approach."

Shumlin made a similar point in an interview with Politico's Alexander Burns earlier Wednesday.

"The lesson from New Jersey is pretty simple," Shumlin said. "We don’t put resources where they don’t make a difference. We didn’t spend a dime in NJ and there was an example of a candidate who — the voters of NJ looked more at his personality than his failed economic policies."

The DGA faces a much bigger challenge next November, when 36 gubernatorial races will be contested. Shumlin hasn't yet said whether he'll seek a second one-year term as the organization's chairman.

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