Tuesday election results raise questions about Biden agenda

A poor night at the ballot box on Tuesday has left some Democrats questioning how best to move forward with President Biden’s spending plans and whether the party needs to refocus its agenda to win over voters. 

White House officials and many Democrats viewed Terry McAuliffe’s (D) defeat in Virginia’s gubernatorial race to Glenn Youngkin (R) and a much closer than expected race for New Jersey governor as signs that Democrats need to push through the Biden agenda quickly to prove the party can deliver on its promises for the public. 

But others wondered if McAuliffe’s loss in a state Biden easily carried last year was a sign the party misread what moderate voters wanted when they put Democrats in office. 

Biden on Wednesday told reporters “people want us to get things done” and said lawmakers should have passed his agenda before Election Day, though he acknowledged it may not have made a difference given the record turnout in Virginia. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a former Virginia governor himself, told reporters the inability for the party to come to a compromise sooner hurt McAuliffe’s ability to sell his vision to voters. 

“I hope my colleagues absorb this notion that when you’re the majority, the ‘D’ in Democrat should stand for ‘doer,’ not ‘delay,’ ‘dithering,’ ‘do-nothing,’ ‘division,’ ” he said. 

The party has centered its agenda around a $1.75 trillion package with funding for climate initiatives and money to expand programs around child care, education and health care. Some strategists questioned if that effort may have hurt Democrats at a time when Americans are worried about inflation and the health of the economy with the pandemic fading as the most important issue for many. 

“The election in 2020 was not the message to go big for Joe Biden,” said former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.). “I would argue had they passed the Build Back Better before the election, it would have been worse for them yesterday.” 

“It seems to me that the Democrats are looking at a lot of issues that I don’t think are front of mind for a lot of voters right now. I think it’s hurting them — they’re going too big. It’s just not the mandate,” he added.

The spending package initially had the price tag of $3.5 trillion, and the new framework from the White House cut provisions like expanding Medicare to cover dental and vision, paid family leave and free community college, all concessions that progressives have fought back on. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has urged Democrats to slow down in considering the reconciliation package, said Tuesday’s results “should be a call to all of us have to be more attentive to the people back home.” 

The White House is in the spotlight over the supply chain issues while Americans are facing goods shortages and long wait times to get products to their homes. And parental influence on school curriculum amid fights over critical race theory and what is being taught after a year of remote learning dominated the final weeks of the campaigns in Virginia and New Jersey. 

“I think for sure Democrats misread their mandate in how much political capital they had, there’s zero doubt that’s the case. Whether they went too far to the left or whether they sort of let their guard down and thought that all of these social issues wouldn’t have the sort of impact that they did because the country was just sort of in a different place now,” said Ivan Zapien, a Democratic lobbyist and former executive director at the Hispanic Leadership Council of the Democratic National Committee. 

Still, White House officials and a number of Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday embraced the view that the results in Virginia and elsewhere were a call to action to push through the Biden agenda and deliver on the president’s promises via a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation package. 

“The inability of Democrats — so far, at least — to deliver on the promises Joe Biden made last year is an unforced error,” Matt Bennett, executive vice president of center-left think tank Third Way, said in a statement that was retweeted by White House chief of staff Ron Klain. 

“The months of in-fighting and sausage-making must come to an end,” Bennett said following McAuliffe’s loss. “We must pass these two historic bills and then explain what they will do to create jobs, cut taxes, and help working families afford the essentials.” 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who also previously served as governor of Virginia, had advocated for passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill as something for McAuliffe to tangibly point to as a reason to trust Democrats in power. 

“Only in Washington, do people think that it is a smart strategy to take a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure and prevent your president from signing that bill into law. And that’s somehow a good strategy,” Warner said Wednesday, according to CNN. 

Warning signs were there for Democrats in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s elections. Biden’s approval rating had steadily declined from roughly 50 percent in mid-August to the low 40 percent range in multiple polls by the end of October. 

His drop was particularly pronounced among independent voters, who played a key role in swinging the Virginia election toward Youngkin. An NBC News poll released Sunday showed 70 percent of independents believed the country is headed in the wrong direction. 

“People went from Biden back to Republicans yesterday. It’s happening, enough of them, an impactful number,” Dent said. “This election wasn’t about Trump yesterday and I get why the Democrats wanted to make it about him. … [Voters are] sending a message to slow down, tap the breaks, look at the issues we’re dealing with which are higher prices, shortages of everything, schools, 18 months of kids not being in school.” 

In Virginia, candidates from the same party as the president historically lose the year after a presidential election. The president’s party lost 11 out of the 12 past governor’s elections in the state. McAuliffe’s win in 2013 after former President Obama won reelection was the lone exception. 

Biden went to Northern Virginia to stump for McAuliffe last week and warned voters that a victory for Youngkin would be a victory for Trump. 

Biden also last week went to New Jersey and, alongside Murphy, highlighted the ways his domestic policy agenda would benefit the region in a speech. 

“To the extent that the indecisiveness in Washington mattered, perhaps it makes Biden look less effective and maybe contributed in some marginal way to his low approval rating,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.

Tags Barack Obama Charlie Dent Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Joe Manchin Mark Warner Ron Klain Terry McAuliffe Tim Kaine

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