Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden’s agenda
With President Biden’s domestic agenda stalled on Capitol Hill, Democrats are nervously looking ahead to the Virginia governor’s race, which could deal a substantial blow to their ambitious policy goals.
Democratic lawmakers had hoped to pass a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill as well as a $2 trillion to $3.5 trillion human infrastructure bill this month, ahead of the bellwether race in Virginia, but now it looks like those measures will lag until November or even December.
This raises the stakes in Virginia as Democrats worry an upset by Republican Glenn Youngkin could send moderates facing tough races in 2022 running for cover.
A loss in Virginia would further empower Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who are calling on fellow Democrats to pass the bipartisan infrastructure package — which is being held in the House — immediately. It would put pressure on Democratic leaders to pull back some of their most ambitious and expensive policy proposals.
“It would be catastrophic if Republicans won the Virginia governor’s race. It would embolden Democratic critics to distance themselves from Biden and go their own way,” predicted Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
He said centrists as well as progressives “would just become more independent and feel less beholden to the national Democratic Party.”
Manchin and Sinema are demanding that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan on the House floor for a vote, even though that won’t guarantee their support for a larger human infrastructure spending package that progressives want to pass at the same time.
So far House progressives have been able to stall the Senate-passed bipartisan package as part of an effort to exert leverage on Manchin and Sinema to agree to a bigger spending number for the reconciliation package.
But the political calculus could turn quickly if Youngkin defeats McAuliffe.
Jonathan Kott, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Manchin, said he thinks McAuliffe will win but predicted that if Republicans pull out a victory, it will bolster centrists who want to move the $1.2 trillion hard infrastructure package immediately.
“I think it will validate Manchin’s position that we should have passed the infrastructure bill and should have had a more targeted approach,” he said.
Kott noted that Virginia “is still a moderate state” and predicted any political setback there would increase motivation among Democrats “to put points on the board” by getting bills to Biden’s desk.
“People are more likely to react and say now we need to pass the infrastructure bill, this showed us we need results, we need to govern on something,” he said.
Democrats are growing increasingly nervous that McAuliffe could lose.
A recent CBS News/YouGov poll showed McAuliffe with a 3-point lead over Youngkin, 50 percent to 47 percent, an advantage within the survey’s 4.1-percentage point margin of error.
Jim Kessler, the executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a Democratic think tank, and a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), said a setback in the Virginia race would be “a moment of reckoning for Democrats.”
“I think McAuliffe is going to win,” he said, but also acknowledged: “I have friends who are in Virginia that worry.”
Matt House, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Schumer, said a Republican upset win in Virginia might prompt progressives and centrists to dig into their positions more firmly.
“Both wings of the Democratic Party would see a McAuliffe loss as proof of what they’ve been saying all along. More moderate members will say it’s proof we’re overreaching and need to scale back. Progressive members will say it’s proof that we’re not being bold enough because we haven’t actually passed [Biden’s entire infrastructure agenda] yet,” he said.
He said a setback in Virginia “is certainly a valuable datapoint and worth paying attention to and certainly would signal a difficult road ahead for Democrats in the midterms.”
“It would certainly be a wake-up call but far from the final nail in the coffin,” he added.
McAuliffe has pointed to Biden’s falling job approval rating as a challenge for his campaign.
“We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington,” he said at a virtual campaign rally earlier this month. “As you know, the president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia, so we’ve got to plow through.”
Some of the Democratic Party’s biggest stars will be stumping for McAuliffe in the next few weeks to avoid a political disaster. Former President Obama will campaign with McAuliffe this week and first lady Jill Biden and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams will travel around the state as well.
The last time a Republican won the state’s governor’s mansion was in 2009 when Bob McDonnell defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds a year after Obama won the state by 6 points over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Biden defeated former President Trump in Virginia last year by 10 points.
The losses in 2009 governor races in Virginia and New Jersey were an ominous development for Democrats that empowered centrists such as then White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to argue for a more scaled-down version of health care reform instead of the sweeping Affordable Care Act, which became a major liability for Democrats in the 2010 midterm election.
Warnings from Emanuel and senior Obama adviser Bill Daley that Democrats needed to tack to the center after the setbacks in Virginia and New Jersey that year proved prescient as Democrats later got hammered in November 2010, losing six seats in the Senate and 63 seats in the House.
Kessler, of Third Way, said Democrats were right to stick to their plan of passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
He said the decision that year to abandon climate change legislation in the Senate after political setbacks in Virginia and New Jersey in November 2009 and the Massachusetts Senate race in January 2010, which Republican candidate Scott Brown won in a stunning upset, hurt Democrats in the 2010 midterms.
He pointed out that Democrats suffered major losses in the 1994 congressional midterm elections after they failed to pass then-President Clinton’s ambitious health care reform agenda.
“One of the lessons from 1994 and 2010 is if Democrats fumble away their legislative items, they get punished by the electorate,” he said. “In 1994 it was HillaryCare and in 2010 it was Cap and Trade.”
“It’s not that those particular pieces were so overwhelmingly popular,” he explained, but he said the failure to pass legislation “showed a party that was divided and couldn’t get things done.”
He said progressives and centrists have negotiated enough to be able to reach a major deal soon.
“The two wings of the Democratic Party know enough about each other’s positions that they should be able to cut a deal,” he said. “There isn’t that much more that we need to know,” predicting the reconciliation bill will wind up being about $2 trillion — far less than the $3.5 trillion that progressives are demanding.
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