Fight over Biden agenda looms large over Virginia governor's race

The chaos surrounding President BidenJoe BidenManchin lays down demands for child tax credit: report Abrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability MORE’s agenda and Congress is threatening to spill into the Virginia governor’s race as Democrats look to defend the governor’s mansion in Richmond.

The race is seen as a bellwether for next year’s midterm elections, a likely referendum on President Biden’s first two years in office. While the race is a state election, its geographic proximity to Washington and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s ties to Biden could influence the results in November.

“Any federal issue will always play bigger in Virginia given the degree Virginia has federal employees and military members,” said veteran Virginia-based Democratic strategist Jared Leopold.

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The final month of the governor’s race comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill find themselves deeply divided on passing a $3.5 trillion social policy measure and a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill, all coinciding with the ongoing fight about raising the debt ceiling. A passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House would mark a victory for Biden and Democrats as a whole, but progressives have worked to hold the bill up until the separate $3.5 trillion measure is passed.

“That’s just another complication for Democrats as they try to put this bill together,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt Fight over Biden agenda looms large over Virginia governor's race MORE (D-Nev.) of the Virginia governor’s race. “They’ve got to take it under consideration.”

On top of that, Biden has faced lowering approval ratings and backlash on the chaotic U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.

McAuliffe has frequently touted Biden’s American Rescue Package and his "Build Back Better" plan on the campaign trail, with the president headlining a rally for McAuliffe in Arlington this summer. But McAuliffe did not bring up Biden’s name in either of the two gubernatorial debates last month, leading some to question whether he was distancing himself from the president.

The former governor’s allies are pushing back against the notion that Biden’s lower approval ratings coupled with the situation on Capitol Hill will have a major effect on the race, saying the state election is insulated to a degree from federal politics and policy.

“Obviously the general standing of your party and your president if it's from your party, it will affect down-ballot races, but that’s more true for federal races than state races,” said longtime conservative commentator Bill Kristol, who has endorsed McAuliffe. “And especially it’s more true for races where people don’t know the individuals, and everyone knows McAuliffe.”

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Leopold added that the environment was much different when the last Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, was elected in 2009 ahead of the 2010 Tea Party wave in the midterms.

“In 2021 there isn’t a uniform narrative against Biden that you’ve seen as grassroots pushback,” he said.

But federal issues have continued to play a supporting role in the race’s narrative. Both candidates were asked about the legislative back-and-forth on Capitol Hill at the final gubernatorial debate in Alexandria on Tuesday. 

McAuliffe sided with his fellow moderate Democrats, saying he thought the $3.5 trillion measure was “too high.” Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin said he would encourage Virginia congressional Republicans to support the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

The former governor and Biden’s supporters point to polling that broadly shows the president’s economic agenda — to include both the infrastructure bill and the larger package containing liberal priorities — to be popular among voters.

A poll released this week by the Blue Green Alliance, a left-leaning coalition of labor and environmental groups, found that 59 percent of voters in Virginia support the reconciliation package after hearing it could cost as much as $3.5 trillion and would be paid for by raising taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations. Only 36 percent opposed the legislation in the poll, which surveyed 400 voters in each of four states.

On top of that, an NPR poll released this week showed Biden’s approval rating slightly improving from 43 percent to 45 percent, while his disapproval rate dropped from 51 percent to 46 percent.

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiPaid family leave is 'not a vacation,' Buttigieg says Biden struggles to rein in Saudi Arabia amid human rights concerns The Memo: Conservatives change their tune on big government MORE told reporters on Wednesday that the administration does not view the governor’s race as a referendum on Biden, but acknowledged McAuliffe had been campaigning on parts of the Build Back Better agenda.

“He is running on and lifting up a number of key components of the President's Build Back Better agenda,” Psaki said.  “And that is something that he agrees with, he — he's clearly stated he thinks would be good for the people of Virginia. We agree.”

Other Democrats have suggested they’re optimistic about the future of the infrastructure package on Capitol Hill.

“I know how the system works. They’re going to work through this. I’m confident that they’ll get a bill to the president’s desk,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Wednesday.

Biden has gotten involved in the race himself, campaigning in person for McAuliffe at an event in July. On Saturday, second gentleman Doug EmhoffDoug EmhoffThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by The Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations — Global supply chain bottleneck worries for U.S. economy The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Biden: We will fix nation's problems The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - New front in mandate wars; debt bill heads to Biden MORE will make campaign stops for McAuliffe in northern Virginia and Richmond. 

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But Youngkin and his GOP allies have still taken swipes at Biden, working to tie him to McAuliffe. The Republican took the opportunity during Tuesday’s debate to slam Biden’s handling of the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, calling it “an abject failure.”

“He abandoned American citizens. He abandoned our allies, and he abandoned Afghans who had gone shoulder to shoulder with us, trying to make a way forward,” Youngkin said.

The Republican’s campaign has also hit McAuliffe’s deep ties to Democratic establishment figures like Biden.

“Terry McAuliffe is the godfather of the modern-day Democrat party. Let’s be honest, he was chairman of the DNC,” Youngkin strategist Kristin Davison told reporters on Tuesday. “Everyone who is in office right now in the Democrat party has some connection with Terry McAuliffe. He is just as responsible for the failure in leadership we’re seeing right now.”

As Republicans take some swipes at Biden, McAuliffe and Virginia Democrats have continued to tie former President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE to Youngkin, pointing to Trump’s deep unpopularity in the Old Dominion.

Youngkin even called out McAuliffe for invoking Trump during the debate, pointing out that the Democrat brought Trump up more than 10 times.

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“Let’s have Terry McAuliffe vs. Glenn Youngkin, and let’s let Virginia voters decide who they want their next governor to be,” Youngkin said.

But McAuliffe and Democrats are adamant that Trump, who lost the state twice, still plays a heavy role in the race given his influence over the GOP.

After Youngkin acknowledged on Tuesday that he would support Trump if he was the party’s nominee in 2024, one Democratic operative told The Hill, “Glenn Youngkin wants Donald Trump to be president again.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed.