WASHINGTON (The Hill): Democrats are closer than ever to clinching victory on President Biden’s Build Back Better package and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but they’re missing the window of opportunity to boost Terry McAuliffe in the neck and neck Virginia governor’s race.
Even if House Democrats are able to pass both pieces of legislation as soon as Tuesday — a development that appeared less likely Monday after public remarks by centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — ballots will already have been cast.
And if McAuliffe does lose to Republican Glenn Youngkin, there will be some second-guessing over the legislative strategy.
“The fact that it’s even close and the result is in question should be a warning call for Democrats that Democrats actually need to deliver on big things that change people’s lives,” said Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director at the Working Families Party.
McAuliffe was once seen as the clear favorite in Virginia, a state Biden won by 10 percentage points in 2020. But recent polls show him essentially tied with or trailing Youngkin.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a former Virginia lieutenant governor, said he was “disappointed” when House Democratic leaders were forced to abandon plans for a vote to clear the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill last Thursday due to resistance from progressives, who wanted to both see the social spending bill’s legislative language and get firmer commitments from Manchin and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
Beyer acknowledged that having the vote before Election Day “certainly would be helpful” for the gubernatorial nominee, but ultimately predicted that it wouldn’t be the decisive factor in the race.
“It would’ve given a win for the president, a win for the American people,” Beyer said. “But I think we’re going to win in Virginia anyway.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) similarly said that the prolonged delay in Congress sending the infrastructure bill, which has both Republican and Democratic support, to Biden’s desk isn’t ideal for Democrats, though he said it paled in comparison to issues like the pandemic and the country’s economic recovery.
“Does it help us? No. Does it hurt us? A little,” Connolly said.
A number of observers say the real issue for the party is following through on the promises made to voters in 2020.
“When Democrats are delivering for people, Democrats win,” said Dinkin. “When Democrats aren’t delivering for people is what sets the stage for the right-wing monster of the week to become the major item of discourse.”
It’s unclear how much the division among Democrats is really hampering McAuliffe.
Youngkin has focused his attacks on education while distancing himself from Trump. McAuliffe has done everything he can to tie Youngkin to the former GOP president, seeing that as the best way to energize Democrats to go to the polls.
Biden’s faltering approval numbers have surely been a drag on McAuliffe, who from the sidelines had urged the House to take up and pass the infrastructure bill already approved by the Senate. McAuliffe and his allies saw the passage of that bill as something that could shift the national political momentum by giving Biden and Democrats a clear victory.
The bipartisan bill has been stuck in the House because progressives saw it as leverage to move the social spending and climate package. They feared that if the infrastructure bill was quickly passed, Manchin, Sinema and centrists might not back the other measure, which is their key priority.
On Monday, Manchin withheld his full support from that bill, saying he wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to bust the budget deficit. He also demanded that the House vote on infrastructure.
“Holding this bill hostage is not going to work in getting my support for the reconciliation bill,” he said of House progressives.
Republicans have seized on the Democratic intraparty problems.
“The Democrats are going to have a hard time — they already are — answering all these questions honestly,” said John Castorani, a GOP candidate for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. “How come we didn’t get a reconciliation passed? How come we don’t have an infrastructure bill that’s passed?”
Some operatives believe too much attention is being paid to the congressional fight, arguing it is unlikely to be the main factor in Virginia. But even these voices acknowledge Biden’s problems and the fighting in Washington, where Democrats have control of the White House and Congress, is a possible impediment to McAuliffe.
“I think the frustration with the direction of the country is a problem for the race regardless,” said Jared Leopold, a veteran Democratic strategist in the state and McAuliffe ally. “But I don’t think if a bill had been passed last week it would have fundamentally altered the race.”
“The challenge of the national environment isn’t specific to this bill,” he said. “You don’t see people in Chesterfield County or Newport News talking about Joe Manchin.”