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Two-Term Virginia Governors Rare, But Not Unprecedented

Virginia governor Mills Godwin signs a bill to create Virginia Commonwealth University during his first term in 1968.
Virginia governor Mills Godwin signs a bill to create Virginia Commonwealth University during his first term in 1968.

Former Governor Terry McAuliffe told CNN on Wednesday that he won’t run for president, but he didn’t rule out a second stab for governor. If McAuliffe tries and succeeds in reaching the Executive Mansion again, he’ll be only the second governor to do so since Virginia began electing governors.

Virginia’s first governors were selected by the General Assembly and limited to three, one-year terms. Several early governors, including Patrick Henry, James Monroe, and George William Smith served two non-consecutive terms.

Virginia’s current one, four-year term was considered progressive at the time of the passage of the 1851 constitution that put it into code, according to Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“It was also quite common in the South and in a few other states to have that one term limit,” Sabato said. “It just so happens all of the other states have abolished it in the years and decades since. Virginia is the only one who has not.”

Mills Godwin, a segregationist and holdout from the Byrd machine, was the only governor to be popularly elected twice: first as a Democrat in 1966, then again as a Republican in 1974, with Republican Linwood Holton sandwiched in between.

In his first term, Godwin was able to establish the state’s community college system and pass a new sales tax. He faced stiffer economic headwinds in his second term, according to Sabato.

“In the ‘70s the economy was terrible when he was serving,” Sabato said. “So he had a very different set of problems, and had to worry about cutting in the 1970s.”

William “Extra Billy” Smith also served two terms that straddled the 1851 constitution. He was selected by the legislature in 1846 and later elected as Virginia's last Confedereate governor in 1864.

Democratic State Senator Adam Ebbins introduced legislation this year to allow two consecutive terms. Ebbins argued that the move would allow more continuity in the cabinet and budget and increase accountability.

“When you don’t allow the governor to run for re-election, there’s less incentive for that governor to stick with their campaign promises,” Ebbins said.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment objected, reminding the body of his two least favorite governors.

“I would very succinctly and ecumenically say two words: Gilmore and McAuliffe,” Norment said.

The bill died in a mostly party-line vote.

Sabato said that were he to run, McAuliffe might benefit from scandals afflicting the men who, until February’s scandals, were most likely to clinch the Democratic nomination: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring.

But McAuliffe’s unique ability to run on a past gubernatorial term might prove to be a mixed blessing, according to Sabato.

“You will have made certain friends because of certain programs and decisions...made during your first term,” Sabato said. “And you’ve also made enemies.”