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Democrats feel new urgency on Biden agenda after Virginia rout

Democrats smarting from election losses in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday are feeling new pressure to act on President Biden’s domestic agenda in the face of political headwinds that appear all but certain to cost the party its already narrow majorities in Congress.

Factions negotiating over the massive reconciliation package traded blame for the drubbing even before the polls closed. By Wednesday, new fissures emerged as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added four weeks of paid family leave to a bill even as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of two moderates at the center of the negotiations, signaled he could not support such a provision.

Speaking to reporters, Manchin called the results of Tuesday’s elections — in which Republicans won Virginia’s governorship and nearly upset New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) — “unbelievable.”

“If we’re going to do something, let’s take time and do it right. Let’s make sure that people know what’s in it,” Manchin said. “We’re talking about revamping the whole entire tax code. That’s mammoth. Totally. We’ve had no hearings, no open hearings.”

But Democratic strategists said they feared the opposite, that a prolonged process of negotiations and in-fighting between moderates and progressives threatened to make a bad political environment even worse.

“My concern is that Manchin and [Sen. Kyrsten] Sinema (D-Ariz.) will feel emboldened to push for even more moderation, but midterm elections are base elections, and they aren’t the heroes that the base will rally around,” said Ed Espinoza, a Democratic strategist who runs Progress Texas.

Moderate organizations like Third Way cited the congressional gridlock as a key cause of their party’s loss in Virginia.

“The inability of Democrats – so far, at least – to deliver on the promises Joe Biden made last year is an unforced error,” said Matt Bennett, Third Way’s spokesman. “The months of in-fighting and sausage-making must come to an end. 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.”

The new urgency recalled for some the last time Republicans won big in off-year elections, in 2009. In Virginia, Bob McDonnell won the governor’s mansion; in New Jersey, Chris Christie claimed the first of his two terms in office. The results shook the Democratic majority in Washington, which was in the midst of finalizing the Affordable Care Act, then-President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.

“The road to passing legislation like the ACA in 2009 or the [bipartisan infrastructure bill] in 2021 is rocky and winding, it takes time,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist in Baltimore who held a top post at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2010.

“For the ACA, once action and results arrived, voters appreciated the improvement in their health care,” McKenna said. “Democrats ran on health care for cycles and cycles after that policy was implemented. We need to deliver on Biden’s promises in a thoughtful way, quickly. It’s messy and frustrating — and the mission cannot be abandoned.”

The path to the Affordable Care Act culminated in March 2010, when Obama signed the bill — eight months before Republicans stormed back to a majority in the House by picking up 63 Democratic-held seats.

Republicans involved in the campaign that year said the ACA only helped their cause, and that the governor’s races that should have served as omens went unheeded.

“The political environment was deteriorating rapidly for Democrats. We expected a course correction, but Democrats pressed forward with their agenda ignoring the warning signs,” said Ken Spain, who directed communications at the National Republican Congressional Committee that year. “A year later, we had all the political ad fodder we needed.”

Some Democrats say this year’s losses should spur their party to address issues that Republicans have used to promising effect.

“I’ve been listening to the people in West Virginia. They’re concerned about inflation, they really have been for a long time,” Manchin said. “We need to be cognizant of that.”

“Like it or not, voters are concerned about immigration, they are concerned about inflation, they are concerned about the economy, and they are still concerned about how we will all live with COVID — we have to lean in to those,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant in Florida. “It doesn’t mean we have to be Republicans, but it does mean we have to recognize these are issues people care about.”

The seemingly stagnant negotiations in Washington, punctuated by endless and ultimately fruitless declarations of a breakthrough, have created a political environment as bad or worse than that which faced Democrats a dozen years ago.

“They want to feel like we’re on some kind of predictable, visible path toward progress and they’re not feeling it,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. “This would be easy to write 2021 off as a Virginia problem, but it’s not.  The current environment is a national problem and Democrats everywhere are sailing into headwinds because of it.”

Alexander Bolton contributed.

Tags Affordable Care Act Barack Obama Chris Christie Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Joe Manchin Nancy Pelosi New Jersey ObamaCare Phil Murphy Terry McAuliffe Virginia
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