In 1991, Zell Miller, then governor of Georgia and a Democrat, advised his colleague Bill Clinton of Arkansas that there were two guys he needed to run his likely presidential campaign: James Carville and Paul Begala.
“Who are they?” asked Clinton, a man well-versed in Democratic politics. Even though they had had successes, including Miller’s election, Carville and Begala didn’t become a big deal until they ran Harris Wofford’s campaign in a special Pennsylvania senate election in 1991. It was the signature contest of that off-year election cycle. A month later, Clinton hired the two young politicos for his successful presidential run.
This year, the signature race is the Virginia gubernatorial contest. The campaign manager of the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, is Robby Mook, 33, a political wunderkind. For those who believe history repeats itself, there is chatter that another Clinton — Hillary — might turn to him, as the architect of the year’s most visible Democratic campaign, to direct her next presidential quest. Mook worked for her in 2008 but is the sort of fresh, new age, tech-savvy strategist that she lacked at the top of her campaign.
First he has to win in Virginia, a race that pits McAuliffe, a prolific Democratic fundraiser, successful former national party chairman and intimate of the Clintons, against the state’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, one of the most prominent Republican social conservatives and a tea party favorite.
The competing strategies in this close contest are clear. They are trading ethical charges, which is probably a wash with voters. Cuccinelli is counting on his passionate base among social conservatives. The Virginia electorate that will turn out in November will be older, more white and evangelical than the voters who helped President Obama carry the once reliable Republican stronghold by four points last year. If the voter profile had replicated that of the last governor’s race, in 2009, Obama would have lost.
“There are a lot more committed voters who will turn out for Ken than there are committed voters who’ll turn out for Terry,” asserts Chris LaCivita, a leading Cuccinelli adviser.
The Republicans are trying to tie Obama’s record around the Democratic candidate’s neck, especially the Affordable Care Act.
“Obamacare is the biggest impediment to job growth in the state,” Cuccinelli said in an impromptu interview last week. He was the first to bring a lawsuit against the health-care measure, though without success.
The attorney general, comfortable his base will turn out, is focusing on jobs and the economy and de-emphasizing his controversial social positions. He has declared that abortion is as bad as slavery and that same-sex relationships violate the laws of nature and could be prosecuted. He’s really moving away from E.W. Jackson, the minister chosen by the conservative-dominated Republican state convention to be the party’s lieutenant governor nominee. Jackson has accused Obama of being a Muslim and an atheist — a tough trick — suggested yoga could lead to Satanism and that Planned Parenthood has been more harmful to blacks than the Ku Klux Klan.
The Democrats are quick to remind voters of Cuccinelli’s social views. At the same time, McAuliffe is warming to the debate over jobs and the economy. He is more comfortable than his opponent in talking to business types; he’s been shaking them down for campaign funds for decades. He has won the endorsements of leading Republican business figures and prominent former office-holders.
In Virginia, “there is a centrist electorate, including the business community, which does turn out,” Mook says. He links McAuliffe to two popular former Democratic governors and current U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, as well as to the current Republican governor, Bob McDonnell.
“We are capturing the more moderate brand of Warner, Kaine and McDonnell,” Mook says.
(The Democratic candidate supported, and the attorney general opposed, McDonnell’s key domestic initiative last year, a huge transportation measure with tax hikes. The governor’s popularity, however, is dropping amid serious ethical allegations.)
McAuliffe, strongly associated with the Clintons, isn’t running away from Obama. Michelle Obama campaigned for him last month.
And Mook is making extensive use of the vaunted Obama campaign machine: drawing on personnel, data, software and social media.
“Robby understands modern campaigns, the value of data and technology,” says David Plouffe, who directed the Obama campaign and is now a Bloomberg Television contributor.
Although they met in person for the first time only last year, Plouffe has vivid recollections of Mook. “He beat us three times; his footprint was on our back,” he says.
When he was only 28, Mook ran Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaigns in Nevada, Ohio and Indiana, all of which, Plouffe painfully remembers, were victories. “Our sense was he did the best job of anyone over there,” Plouffe says. “This is a guy with limitless potential.”
After the failed Clinton quest, he ran Jeanne Shaheen’s successful campaign to unseat John Sununu, the incumbent Republican senator in New Hampshire.
“He’s a very smart guy and I don’t think he has any enemies, which is hard in this state,” says Mike Vlacich, a longtime Shaheen adviser.
Last year, Mook directed the House Democrats’ campaign, gaining eight seats but not control of the chamber.
The young operative is a workaholic who hires top talent, empowers them, understands cutting-edge changes in politics, and revels in his craft.
“I love being thrown into a situation, putting together a team, getting a strategy and achieving something,” Mook says.
He also works unusually well with candidates. The garrulous and free-wheeling McAuliffe has been more disciplined this time, staying on message. Invariably, he brings any discussion back to jobs.
If it seems incongruous that a young guy named Robby Mook from Vermont might be the hottest U.S. political strategist, remember that a little over two decades ago even Bill Clinton wasn’t familiar with a “Ragin’ Cajun” named Carville.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.