McAuliffe’s loss exposes deepening Democratic rift

Terry McAuliffe’s stinging loss in Virginia laid bare the deepening rift between Democrats who believe moderation and party loyalty win elections and those desperate for new blood. 

To Democrats in the former camp, McAuliffe was an experienced insider with an institutional knowledge of how to lead the state. As Virginia’s former top executive and former head of the national party committee, he embraced much of the ideology that led President Biden to win the state by double digits, without being swayed to move too far to the left.  

To them, he was a safe bet in a close race. 

But to the latter group, that thinking cost the party a pivotal statewide seat.

It also set off a collision course between factions of the Democratic Party that are now squabbling over what happened and wondering how to protect their congressional majorities from a similar shellacking next year. 

McAuliffe’s defeat put “a punctuation point” on the waning influence of the Clinton-Obama wing of the party, said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, a grassroots group that supports dozens of new progressive candidates angling for higher office.

On Tuesday, the Democratic former governor narrowly lost to Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, a political newbie who ran a playbook that was politically similar to but stylistically softer than former President Trump’s.

A year after a wave of anti-Trump sentiment put the White House and both chambers of Congress in Democratic hands, Democrats criticizing McAuliffe say he needed to give voters a vision of inspirational ideas and tangible accomplishments rather than go full-on anti-Trump if he wanted to compete seriously. Trump wasn’t on the ballot, and McAuliffe’s references to him rang hollow, many said following his defeat. 

“We did turn out people, and we still lost,” said Tyler Law, a Democratic strategist and former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staffer. “While the loss was not big percentwise, it’s a massive swing from Biden’s margin one year ago.” 

As both wings of the party scramble to craft their post-mortems with an eye toward 2022, progressives say that thinking should extend to other Democrats who will run up against a wave of post-Trump candidates down the ballot next year.

“That whole model isn’t working in an era when what voters really want is authenticity,” said Karthik Ganapathy, an alum of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign who created Left Flank Strategies to bring new liberal Democrats into office.

“The old model of poll-tested, centrist, moderate, consultant-driven candidates, that just isn’t working,” he said. “People are drawn to candidates who color outside the lines.” 

Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of the highest-profile proponents of pumping fresh air into the party, offered some post-Virginia election analysis on Wednesday. In essence, she said McAuliffe lost due to his moderate orthodoxy.

“I think that the results show the limits of trying to run a fully 100 percent super moderated campaign,” she said in a video on Instagram.  

Even before the election, Democrats worried about a widening enthusiasm gap. A Roanoke College poll taken in the run-up showed 49 percent of Republicans were enthusiastic about voting, compared with 32 percent of Democrats.

But as with any tight race, the results were more nuanced. And they showed some limitations to that kind of blanket sentiment.

When McAuliffe swept Virginia’s Democratic primary in June, for example, he defeated the progressive-backed candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy, who received support from prominent leftist groups such as Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He won 62 percent of the vote, with Carroll Foy trailing behind at 19.8 percent.  

Progressives insist any candidate from their wing of the party would not have stood a chance against McAuliffe, a household name, with tons of connections and vast resources within the Democratic ecosystem. 

In a way, he was Virginia’s version of Biden in the 2020 presidential primary. 

“In places where the establishment has a lock on the Democratic Party, that’s really the first challenge for progressives,” Geevarghese said, arguing that it’s going to take long-term organizing to build out more capacity for left-wing success. 

“We’ve got to be able to elect progressives to precinct captains to party committees and then begin to change the orientation of the party itself and the candidates that they’re open to,” he said.

Other Democrats say the issue was not that McAuliffe wasn’t progressive enough; it was that he lost more moderate-leaning voters who swung to Youngkin. 

Exit polling from CNN showed Youngkin won 54 percent of the independent vote, while McAuliffe captured just 45 percent. 

“There is something about the Democratic brand at this moment that is hurting us with middle-of-the-road voters,” said Law. “We need to persuade enough middle of the road voters if we want to win.” 

“The math does not support some argument that we can give up on all white voters and some moderates. It’s just absurd,” he added. “When we won the House in 2018, we did so both because we had big turnout, high energy on our side but because we persuaded middle-of-the-road voters.” 

Some Democrats critical of McAuliffe also say he simply didn’t personally fit the party’s new mold. A white man at 64 doesn’t exactly scream identity progress, they say. 

“The idea that a white man as a candidate is going to save us all was proven wrong,” said one Democratic strategist and women’s rights advocate. “Electability is a myth.” 

“What we need to do is take this as an opportunity to look at the various candidates that are going to deliver the messages the best,” the strategist said. “Who are the candidates who maybe understand the issues best, whether that be by lived experience or best connection to the voters, and make sure that we really invest in them. They can win.”  

The fact that McAuliffe’s highest-profile supporters didn’t outwardly recognize that also raised eyebrows among some on the left. 

Biden was arguably McAuliffe’s strongest booster. The two have been friends and allies for decades in politics. Just after his loss, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) similarly called him a “great leader.”  

Before Election Day, Vice President Harris said the Virginia results would be a harbinger for the party’s midterm fate. But when the final tally didn’t go in their favor, Republicans seized on the remarks, and the clip became mocked by the GOP. 

“What happens in Virginia will, in large part, determine what happens in 2022, 2024 and on,” Harris said.

After the loss, progressives are saying “I told you so” to fellow Democrats who counted on him to pull off a win.

“Everyone’s talking about Virginia because that was the big loss of the night, where, to be clear, a moderate lost,” said Marcela Mulholland, political director of the liberal polling firm Data for Progress. “The biggest wins of the night were progressive mayoral candidates across the country in Cleveland, in Boston, in Dearborn, in Pittsburgh, winning on really progressive platforms.”

Mayoral candidates Justin Bibb, Michelle Wu and Ed Gainey were elected in Cleveland, Boston and Pittsburgh, respectively, on Tuesday. All mayor-elects are people of color and ran on progressive populism.  

To be sure, liberals didn’t see victory in every race.

On Friday, Buffalo, N.Y., Mayor Byron Brown (D) appeared to be on track to defeating socialist India Walton in that city’s race. Walton defeated Brown in the Democratic primary, resulting in Brown running as a write-in candidate. The race received national attention after Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders offered their support. 

Despite the push for younger, more diverse and more left-wing candidates, however, some Virginia politicos on both sides of the aisle are skeptical that a staunchly liberal nominee would stand a chance on the ballot in the commonwealth or other swing states and districts.  

“I don’t see it,” said Aaron Cutler, who worked as a senior adviser to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). He pointed to the success of Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) as proof that taking a middle-ground approach can work. 

“Look at Spanberger,” Cutler said. “That’s why she won, because she is sort of a centrist. That’s why Mark Warner is a successful politician in Virginia.” 

Tags Abigail Spanberger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Eric Cantor Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Mark Warner Nancy Pelosi Terry McAuliffe Virginia

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