- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s name won’t be on the ballot in November’s legislative elections in his state, but he’ll have a lot riding on its outcome.

The former Washington insider has made it a priority for Democrats to retake the Virginia Senate and has focused considerable resources from his political action committee toward a handful of competitive races.

“I feel good, we’re working hard,” McAuliffe said, adding that he feels the majority of voters side with Democrats on issues like gun control and education.

If he’s successful, McAuliffe will have greater political clout and have more deal-making cachet with the Republican-dominated House of Delegates during the last two years of his term. If he loses, McAuliffe could look politically weak at a particularly awkward time, just as his friend Hillary Rodham Clinton seeks the White House and will likely need swing-state Virginia to win.

“The stakes for (McAuliffe) are relatively high because they are related to what he’s been successful at his whole life, which is campaigning,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University.

Democrats need only gain one seat to take control of the Senate since Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam controls the tie-breaking vote. Republicans currently have a 21 to 19 edge. Experts expect about six Senate contests around the state, out of a possible 40, to be competitive.

Since taking office McAuliffe has raised more $4 million for his political action committee, which has taken the lead in coordinating campaign efforts in the half-dozen Senate races expected to be competitive. A spokesman for McAuliffe’s PAC declined to say how much the governor plans to spend on the Senate races.

The PAC has spent heavily on boosting Democratic turnout and has help pay for 69 field operatives to help campaigns identify voters and get them to the polls, according to PAC spokesman Stephen Carter.

Virginia is one of a handful of states to hold off-year legislative elections, when turnout is usually lower.

It’s also is unique among states in that it prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms, meaning most governors have only four years to make a mark.

In 2011, McAuliffe’s GOP predecessor, Bob McDonnell, faced a Senate in Democratic control. McDonnell raised significant funds and spent heavily to help his party win control of the upper chamber.

“With a one-term governor, it’s difficult to maintain leverage throughout your term. We thought that raising money and investing heavily in legislative races would help the governor continue to be able to advance his priorities in the legislation during the last two years of his term,” said Phil Cox, McDonnell’s political adviser.

McDonnell’s PAC ran television ads in key Senate races heavily featuring the governor. He was at the peak of his popularity then and appeared in several TV ads on behalf of fellow Republicans running in competitive races.

McDonnell’s candidates won, giving Republicans full control of the General Assembly as well as the Executive Mansion for the remainder of his term. With both chambers under GOP control, McDonnell was able to advance legislation he wanted and pass a landmark transportation funding bill.

At least in terms of a legislative agenda, the stakes are lower for McAuliffe.

Republicans will almost certainly retain control of the state House and remain in position to stymie any of McAuliffe’s big-ticket legislative goals. Republicans currently have 67 seats in the House, and only a handful of contests are expected to be competitive in November.

Still, said Bob Holsworth, a consultant and retired Virginia Commonwealth University political analyst, having a Democratic majority in the Senate will give McAuliffe “more opportunity to extract compromise on some big issues” while also boosting his party’s morale.

“You don’t want them to be perceived as a permanent minority,” he said.

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