THE BLOG
07/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Terry McAuliffe's Achilles Heel was not the Clintons

They say when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So sums up the not-so-surprising defeat of Terry McAuliffe in his race to become the Democratic Party nominee for Virginia Governor.

It's also not surprising to find all of the national pundits and Beltway insiders scratching their heads over his defeat with a good deal of hand wringing over "what that means for the Clintons." Dan Balz's post mortem of the election in the Washington Post spent several paragraphs arguing whether or not the Clinton connection was an asset or a liability and what McAuliffe's defeat means to the Clinton brand.

Frankly, the usually astute Balz missed the point -- as did all of the pundits and insiders. They always have. They simply do not understand the nuances of the Southern or Heartland voter and the importance of relationships over marketing. They continuously (and erroneously) assume that the voters outside of New England and any of the top MSA's can be swayed (read: bought) by slick advertising in lieu of authenticity.

Basically, they think we're stupid. Or a bunch of backwater Jim Crow racists and therefore unworthy of their time.

What we are is savvy, and we demand the respect borne out of an honest determination to connect with us and our communities. We do not expect candidates to be in lock-step with us, and we don't even mind a non-native running for office. But, just because you've lived in the neighborhood for a while, if you haven't been, well, neighborly, then you haven't earned our trust.

I am eternally baffled why most Democratic campaign directors think they can get different results using different strategies in different regions. Why would drive-through fundraisers work in the South or in the Heartland versus the intense, personal outreach and ground campaigns they routinely use to capture New England, Florida, California and the Swing State-Voter-of-the-Month? Certainly Obama's campaign strategy defied such conventions as employed to the demise of Kerry and Gore. If anyone had cause to write-off the Southern voter, history would have excused Obama. Instead he courted votes in the most rural areas of the South and was rewarded with a strong plurality of support, stirring Democratic affinities that went dormant when the DNC -- and the DLC -- ignored the South after 1992.
About halfway through the WaPo article, Balz finally hinted at this reality: "His early lead in the polls disguised the fact that ... of the three candidates ... McAuliffe had the least connection [to voters]."

How can one live in a state for two decades with aspirations to statewide political office and have done so little to nurture a connection outside of Beltway? It's offensive. McAuliffe presented himself as a carpetbagger, pure and simple.

The irony of the matter is that his political mentor Hillary Rodham Clinton was able to overcome a similar handicap when she had the temerity to run for U.S. Senate after only living in the Empire State for a couple of months when she left the White House. Admittedly, I did not follow every tactical move of the McAuliffe campaign in Virginia, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt (as we Southerners are wont to do since it is the polite thing), and assume that his campaign trotted him out to listening parties, town hall meetings and the like. If that happened, and he was still unable to forge a connection with voters, then it was simply his personal failure to resonate. Blaming the Clintons is grossly unfair to the former President and the Secretary of State.

I met Terry McAuliffe during the 2004 Presidential Primary campaign when I was championing Howard Dean who (despite a Walt Whitman-esque Yawp) succeeded McAuliffe as national Party Chairman and did more to elect Democrats in all 50 states and win back the White House than McAuliffe ever accomplished. Balz and others have hinted at McAuliffe's brassy personality. After my encounters with him, I would call him pugnacious... to the point of rude.

Frankly, this endemic character flaw probably hurt McAuliffe's electoral chances more than anything else. While his "brass" probably was what the Party and the country needed to elect and re-elect Bill Clinton and to corral the herd of cats that is the many cantankerous factions of the DNC, it's not something that translates into the warm humility needed to inspire people to give you their vote.

As I write this, I can almost feel McAuliffe's famously rapid-fire sneer, and I can easily imagine him wind up to a dismissive retort about how Fauntleroys don't get elected. He would be right. But humility doesn't make you a Fauntleroy, whereas being an inauthentic politician loses elections every time.