Terry McAuliffe could go down in Virginia’s gubernatorial race Tuesday, and neither congressional liberals nor centrists want to take the blame.
Democrats fear losing the marquee race in a state President Joe Biden won by 10 points last year could do irreparable damage to their already-fragile agenda heading into next year’s midterms. The result is some unusual last-minute machinations on Capitol Hill, as key members of the party’s two wings resort to rhetorical gymnastics to avoid being cast as obstructionists.
Progressives are suddenly pushing to pass both planks of Democrats’ domestic policy foundation — a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a still-unfinished social spending package — this week after blowing up leadership’s strategy just days ago. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), meanwhile, blasted House liberals Monday and said he wouldn’t be held “hostage” to their demands after sending more conciliatory signals last week.
Translation: No one wants to be seen as the problem child if Democrats’ electoral prospects plummet this week.
“Clearly, showing that we can make progress would have been nice,” lamented Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, a former Virginia governor, of the failed infrastructure vote push.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) was much more blunt: “We haven’t gotten anything done. That says enough about their strategy,” he said of progressives. But Tester also chided Manchin for his fiery press conference Monday: “I think Joe made a mistake.”
The idea that liberals would be to blame if McAuliffe loses to Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin, particularly given the array of other issues that animated his race, didn’t fly with leaders on the left.
“I've watched all the attack ads on Terry McAuliffe and not a single one has talked about the [infrastructure bill] not passing. They've all been about other things,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told reporters, echoing a sentiment repeated by most other House progressives on Monday.
House progressives argue that their shift in stance has much less to do with the Virginia election than with the fact that Democratic leaders released long-awaited legislative text — though they did that before the yanked infrastructure vote — and began moving toward consideration of both of Biden's priorities this week.
But several Democrats from other corners of the caucus privately expressed their fury toward progressives Monday night after POLITICO reported Jayapal helped derail their leadership’s infrastructure vote strategy last week. What many hoped would be an opportunity to change the narrative going into the weekend instead resulted in a cascade of coverage about how Democrats can’t agree.
Democratic infighting has dominated the national conversation for months as moderates and progressives have tangled over the social spending package and timing for a House infrastructure vote. The results have proven brutal for Biden’s approval rating and voter confidence in the party heading into a critical gubernatorial race many see as a bellwether for Democrats’ fate next year.
That election in Virginia, which is neck-and-neck between McAuliffe and his GOP opponent, was the undercurrent of many private Democratic conversations on Monday night. Several senior Democrats fretted that it could undercut their momentum as the party continues to spar over both bills.
Many in House leadership are still furious that their caucus didn’t vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill last week.
“I thought it was a missed opportunity,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Democrats in a private meeting Monday night. “I thought we looked terrible, and we need to make good on this.”
Her deputy, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, echoed the sentiment in the same meeting: “Our party would have been better off” had the infrastructure bill passed, he said.
Centrist Democrats were desperate for a House vote on infrastructure last week, saying that would give McAuliffe a much-needed boost against Youngkin. But progressives resisted, arguing that they needed bill text and a commitment from both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on supporting the broader bill.
Jayapal and her progressive group have since taken a hard turn, declaring that it’s time to trust Biden and the Senate.
”A lot has changed since last week. We said last week that we need text. We got text,” Jayapal said Monday night, declining to criticize Manchin or other moderates. Instead, she pointed to the trust she and progressives had placed in Biden to close the deal on social spending.
It's a notable departure after dozens of members of the group have spent months holding the line, refusing to back infrastructure without its progressive counterpart legislation out of distrust of their Senate colleagues.
“I think we need to move. I think every day we delay plays into Joe Manchin’s theatrics,” said House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who voiced the same concerns aloud to colleagues in a private meeting Monday night.
Such a quick turnaround in demands has given other Democrats whiplash. That includes members of leadership, who have not specifically promised to hold votes on those two priorities at the same time this week.
Polls continue to show McAuliffe essentially tied with Youngkin. But Democrats were especially rattled by a NBC News poll over the weekend that showed dismal approval ratings for Biden, with 71 percent of those surveyed saying the country is “headed in the wrong direction.”
“Oh I definitely think it would’ve helped,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who once ran for his state’s governorship, said of the planned infrastructure vote last week.
Beyer, a member of the Progressive Caucus, added of his colleagues in the group: “While they’d love to be helpful, they weren’t willing to give up the alleged leverage of the [infrastructure bill] with Manchin and Sinema.”
But even if Tuesday goes south for McAuliffe, Democrats insist that Congress’ decisions are only one of many factors impacting the final balloting. And progressives defended their position Monday, already arguing that they would not be responsible for a McAuliffe loss.
“Everything has an impact on everything,” acknowledged Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) “I think at the end of the day, what happens in Virginia is what the candidate stands for, the nature of the campaign, the degree to which the candidate is resonating with the people.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was gloating about Democrats' misfortunes even before polls closed in Virginia.
“Their whole game plan has always just been anti-Trump, and now that people are talking about policy, they are in trouble,” McCarthy said.
The Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure package nearly three months ago, with support from all 50 Senate Democrats and 19 Republicans. Since then, Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), also a former governor, have pushed for their House counterparts to pass the bill to help McAuliffe.
Given how close the poll numbers are, the state’s two senators still say every little bit helps.
“I wish they would have, and I’m just being really selfish,” Kaine said. “It would have been helpful in Virginia to have these bills done in mid-October instead of mid-November.”
Nicholas Wu and Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.
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