Dave 'Mudcat' Saunders, noted politico, shines in Blacksburg

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WJLA) – After picking up a visitor at a nearby hotel late one afternoon earlier this week, nationally known Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders purposefully steers his truck down Main Street here at Virginia Tech, the school he attended during the late 1960s and early 70s.

He’s on a mission.

First order of business: Grab a quick bite to eat. Second order of business: Go watch the Hokies football practice and say hello to their coach, longtime buddy Frank Beamer.

But first, a pit stop. And he darn near scares two college kids to death as he barges up the front porch of a small white house and bangs on the door.

“Hey, how y’all doin,’ Mudcat loudly barks with his deep country drawl.

Blank stares.

“I’m a brother!,” he replies to the bearers of said blank stares. “I gotta take a leak!”

And so into the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house he strides. And after taking his aforementioned leak, Mudcat, filter-less Camel cigarette in his hand, spends the next 20 minutes or so regaling young Ben Smith and Jorge Schmidt with wild tales from his time there as a fraternity brother.

The stories get wilder and wilder; the language saltier and saltier. (Remember, late ‘60s, and all that entails). The college kids’ eyes grow wider and wider but their grins also grow bigger and bigger in wonderment of this stranger who basically wandered into their house and more or less took over.

Mudcat’s visitor leans over to Schmidt and whispers, “You have no idea who you’re talking to, do you?” Um, not really. “Well, google Dave Mudcat Saunders.”

He whips out his smart phone and does just that. “Whoa,” he says softly. “Whoa.”

Finally, it’s time to leave but not before Smith and Schmidt exchange information with Saunders and request a photo be taken of them alongside “Brother Mudcat.”

Saunders, a real estate developer in nearby Roanoke by trade and a political operative by hobby (actually, the two are interchangeable), is a champion of the so-called Reverse Southern Strategy, one in which rural white folks don’t have to see the GOP as their be-all and end-all. He helped Virginia’s Jim Webb get elected as a U.S. senator{ }("He should be{ }named king of the United States immediately!"){ }and helped get Mark Warner elected as Virginia governor.

He has appeared numerous times on virtually every national political talk show there is, has written numerous op-eds for a variety of national publications, and released a book along with Harvard professor Steve Jarding in 2006 that pretty much captures his political philosophy: “Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland, and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ’em Out.”

He feels passionately about the latter sentiment but just as passionately about his beloved Hokies, and he wielded no small amount of influence with Warner when the governor successfully lobbied a decade ago that ACC expansion most certainly should include Virginia Tech, and that’s exactly what happened.

But on this day, he’s not interested in lobbying – just watching practice. So after a stop at a local student-hangout restaurant, much as he did at the Lambda Chi Alpha house, he barges into practice.

After folks notice he’s there, Saunders has no shortage of well-wishers. He greets Beamer near the middle of the practice field outside Lane Stadium midway through the session and proceeds to give him a bear hug.

“Hey, there, Frankie boy!” he says.

“Mud! Always a pleasure,” a grinning Beamer says.

Mudcat and his visitor take their leave shortly thereafter – after several stops and starts, when he spies something interesting in the workout -- and head back to hotel. During the short ride, the conversation finally turns to politics, specifically, Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial race between Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe.

That’s when Saunders grows uncharacteristically quiet after being asked about it.

He appears a little bit conflicted.

“Not a little bit conflicted,” Saunders says softly. “Surprisingly conflicted.”

He has gotten to know Cuccinelli personally over the past several years, and they skeet-shoot together and chat about life in general . He considers him a good friend. Saunders knows McAuliffe, as well, but chooses not to speak about their professional relationship.

But the fact remains that Mudcat’s a Democratic strategist and staunchly loyal to his party.

Asked a couple of days later about being conflicted and why, Saunders replied in an e-mail as such:

"A lot of my fellow Democrats are shocked when they find out that the Cooch and I are friends." { }. . ."Sure, Cooch and I agree to disagree on certain social issues. But in my world of Jacksonian Democracy, lack of economic fairness reigns King at this point. A moron knows the middle class is going away, and with it, there goes all of our ways of life.

"Cooch despises the unfair advantages that the big guys hold over us in the middle as much or more than I do. And I know from a lot of conversations that his resentment of coin-operated government that favors the greedy is not some line in his playbook. Economic fairness is ingrained down there in his gut where he lives."

Suddenly, Blacksburg was a long way away. Back to reality.

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