Terry McAuliffe, Virginia's Democratic candidate for governor, distances his fortunes from Biden's agenda

·Chief National Correspondent
·7 min read

In Washington, Democrats believe that if they can pass an infrastructure bill before Oct. 31, it will help Terry McAuliffe win his second term as Virginia’s governor just two days later — and if they do not, he might be doomed.

But at a campaign stop in Northern Virginia on Tuesday, McAuliffe said he didn’t think voters in the commonwealth cared that much about the goings-on in Congress.

“What I’m hearing around Virginia is not what’s going on in Washington, D.C., at all. It’s, ‘What are you going to do for my life?’” McAuliffe told reporters during a campaign stop at Amoo’s Persian fusion restaurant in McLean, an affluent suburb of the nation’s capital.

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe participates in a campaign event at Lubber Run Park in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., July 23, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at a campaign event at Lubber Run Park in Arlington on July 23. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

But Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who is also a former governor, has said that passing infrastructure is important to show voters that “Democrats know how to govern.” And McAuliffe himself has called on Congress recently to pass the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which passed the Senate over the summer but has languished in the House amid infighting between the Democrats’ progressive and centrist wings.

“We’ve got frustration with Washington. You know, why haven’t we passed this infrastructure bill. It passed the U.S. Senate with 69 votes two months ago,” McAuliffe told CNN’s Dana Bash earlier this month. When asked by Bash if he was frustrated with congressional Democrats, McAuliffe answered in the affirmative.

“You bet I’m frustrated,” he said.

The reality is that McAuliffe is neck and neck with Republican Glenn Youngkin in a state where President Biden won by 10 points for a number of reasons, and the Democratic infighting on Capitol Hill is part of that mix.

Also relevant is the fact that former President Donald Trump — who is toxic in the state — is not on the ballot, and that McAuliffe is fighting headwinds created by Biden’s drooping approval numbers, along with rising costs for food, appliances, cars and home heating, and a persistent pandemic.

Sebastian Oveysi, one of the restaurant’s owners, told McAuliffe that he used to buy chicken breasts at $1.69 a pound but that price is now up to $3.75. “Prices have been increasing dramatically,” Oveysi said. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) speaks during an Early Vote rally October 19, 2021 in Stafford, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at a rally on Tuesday in Stafford, Va. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

McAuliffe, who was limited to one consecutive term by the state constitution, said voters he talks to want to know if he will raise the minimum wage to $15, and if families will be provided paid sick leave. McAuliffe’s campaign website says that “nearly half of Virginia’s private sector workers do not have access to paid sick days,” and that “it is past time that we provide this necessary benefit to Virginians.”

Oveysi, who said he was an enthusiastic supporter of McAuliffe’s, told the Democrat that he pays too much in taxes and that it is hard to hire workers for less than $20 an hour because of the rising cost of living. McAuliffe sidestepped the complaint.

But it is noteworthy that the Republican candidate, Youngkin, is not talking all that much about economic issues either. Ongoing issues like supply chain disruption and rising inflation matter to many people, and may be a boon to Youngkin’s fortunes. But his campaign doesn’t seem to think that those pocketbook items tap into the kind of visceral anger that can turn out rock-ribbed Republicans.

For that, Youngkin has emphasized culture war issues, such as how America’s fraught racial history should be taught in schools, and has sought to tap into resentment among core Republican voters about mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates. He is seeking to bring moderate Republicans and independents into his fold by packaging much of this in a “parents matter” message, which he also hopes will attract some Biden voters turned off by Democrats’ leftward turn on social issues.

Similarly, McAuliffe’s closing message is also about turning out base voters on his side. He is talking a lot about how abortion is under threat from Republicans, and pounding on Youngkin’s refusal to explicitly rebuke former President Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection he incited. Abortion and Trump have both proven to be issues that motivate key Democratic voting blocs, such as suburban women, to go to the polls. 

Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on October 09, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump at a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Oct. 9 in Des Moines. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

And a senior Democratic congressional aide familiar with Virginia politics told Yahoo News that the fortunes of the Biden agenda in Congress will not win or lose the race for McAuliffe. But some Democrats in Congress, like Warner, have said that if they pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill in the next week or two, it will help McAuliffe win.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set Oct. 31 as a deadline for House Democrats to vote on the infrastructure package and to agree on a framework for the party’s budget proposal, which aims to increase health care benefits, lower prescription drug prices, combat climate change and otherwise expand the social safety net. Unlike the infrastructure package, which won the support of 19 GOP senators in August, the budget proposal has no Republican support, and Democrats are racing against the clock to hammer out a deal that will please moderates and liberals alike.

But if Democrats cannot pass anything before the Nov. 2 election, then the outcome in Virginia will boomerang back onto negotiations in Congress. The question is how.

If McAuliffe were to win, would that encourage Democrats to come together in Congress and pass infrastructure and the budget? Or would it give different factions the sense that there is not so much pressure to reach a deal, and lull Democrats into putting action off even longer, possibly squandering their chances of doing anything?

If McAuliffe were to lose, would that be a wake-up call that brought all Democrats to the bargaining table and got an agreement across the finish line? Or would it plunge them into chaos?

Although once reliably conservative, Virginia has been Democratic territory for most of this century.

The last Republican to win the commonwealth in a presidential contest was George W. Bush in 2004, and the GOP hasn’t won statewide since Bob McDonnell was elected governor in 2009, which was a preview of the party’s massive gains in the 2010 midterms. However, only once in the last five decades has the party out of power in the White House won the governor’s race, and that was McAuliffe in 2013. 

U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a campaign event with candidate for Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe, at Lubber Run Park in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., July 23, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
President Biden at a campaign event with Terry McAuliffe at Lubber Run Park in Arlington, Va., on July 23. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

“The media will say the sky is falling, Biden is a disaster, it’s the apocalypse for Democrats” if McAuliffe loses, said one Democratic strategist involved in Virginia and national elections. “The question is, can you get something done in that atmosphere?”

As for McAuliffe’s chances of winning the election, the strategist said “it’s trending our way, but it will be close.”

Brendan Buck, who advised two Republican House speakers — John Boehner and Paul Ryan — said that if McAuliffe were to lose, “that will send a jolt and get [Democrats] moving on it quicker.”

“But maybe I’m giving them too much credit for acting rationally. If they were rational they’d already pass [infrastructure],” Buck told Yahoo News.

Of course, all of this will be moot if Biden, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can get progressives, moderates and everyone in between to reach an agreement before Halloween.

McAuliffe said Tuesday he was optimistic and that a deal was “very close.” And sources close to Pelosi told Yahoo News the same. On Capitol Hill, Schumer said he wanted a framework agreement on the budget deal this week.

But if that doesn’t happen, it won’t be the first time Democrats will have blown past a deadline set by one of their party leaders. The question is whether McAuliffe is right that Virginia voters will elect him regardless — and if they don’t, what a Youngkin victory will do to Democrats’ already teetering morale. 

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