Democrats on Capitol Hill are currently embroiled in trying negotiations over how to pass both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a larger, more politically difficult multi-trillion-dollar social spending plan. Moderates like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin have balked at the price tag of the social spending plan, arguing the proposed $3.5 trillion should come down to around $1.5 trillion. Progressives, meanwhile, are arguing that the current price tag is already a concession and are threatening to sink the infrastructure plan over the impasse.
While that may be true for Biden, it isn’t the case for McAuliffe, who will face voters in a month and would like to run on the success of the Biden White House, rather than be tagged with Democratic disarray in Congress.
Speaking with entrepreneurs on Friday, McAuliffe said he is “pretty confident” the infrastructure deal would get passed, but his rhetoric for those in Congress was more caustic in a conversation with CNN.
“I say: Do your job,” McAuliffe responded when asked about his message to Democrats struggling to pass an infrastructure bill. “You got elected to Congress. We in the states are desperate for this infrastructure money. … We need help out here in the states and people elected you to do your job.”
He added: “It’s frustrating. … Quit your little chitty chat, do your job and quit the posturing, quit going out and talking to the press all day. Do like I did as governor. I brought Republicans and Democrats in a room. We figured it out and I made Virginia a better state. And they’ve got to understand that they have a responsibility. Let’s get it done.”
On Saturday at an event in Leesburg, Virginia, McAuliffe pressed on, acknowledging that a possible six-week delay in passing the bill worries him both politically and for the country.
“This is about the country. We need this money for roads and bridges and every day you delay is another day we aren’t fixing them,” he told CNN.
Youngkin, throughout the campaign, has tried to turn McAuliffe’s ties to President Joe Biden to his advantage, regularly accusing the Democrat of backing Biden’s “failure of leadership,” especially on the President’s handling of the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan. In their second and final debate last month, McAuliffe rebutted those claims by noting Biden won the commonwealth by 10 points in 2020.
Even with recent Democratic wins, party operatives in Virginia are worriedly watching Congress take its time as their more consequential statewide elections take place in a month.
“If this race doesn’t go well for us and Democrats across the board, time is not going to matter at that point,” said a top Democratic operative working in Virginia. “People will be freaked and there will be a chance nothing gets done. That’s the worst possible scenario and I think it is a real one.”
The operative, who asked for anonymity to speak openly about the McAuliffe race, said the former governor is benefiting from his experience and near statewide name identification because a lesser-known Democrat would be even more hurt by the chaos in Washington.
“The Democratic brand is suffering right now,” the Virginia operative said. “This is where the fact that he has built a brand that is separate from (a generic Democrat) is a something that is keeping him in a position to be successful.”
McAuliffe clearly knows the chaos in Washington is a threat.
His comments to CNN on Friday are just the latest in a long line of rebukes of Congress. In late September, McAuliffe acknowledged the “federal headwinds” in his race and slammed members of Congress for acting like they are only sent to Congress to talk.
“They have got to pass these bills,” McAuliffe said recently.
“We control the House, the Senate and the White House,” McAuliffe said in an interview with CNN recently. “We need this infrastructure. I can tell you as a former governor, it is absolutely critical for our bridges and roads, so let’s get it done and quit talking.”
This is not the first time a McAuliffe bid has been impacted by federal issues. When he was running for governor in 2013, the final weeks of the race were overshadowed by the disastrous rollout of the Healthcare.gov website and a government shutdown in October. President Barrack Obama and Democrats across the country saw their poll numbers fall in the wake of the dueling dramas.
While McAuliffe would narrowly win the race by roughly 2%, the final weeks of the campaign were nerve wracking because of the momentum Republicans picked by running on the Washington chaos.
Conversations with voters at local polling places, including McAuliffe supporters, back up Democratic concerns about federal headwinds. While numerous Youngkin supporters said they saw backing the Republican as a chance to rebuke Biden, even some McAuliffe supporters said the reason they were backing the Democrat was because of his previous four years as governor, not to support Biden.
“He is a previous governor, and I had no complaints with him then, so I am sticking with what we know,” said Andrew McNulty, a voter who cast an early ballot for McAuliffe in Fairfax County. McNulty said he was happy with Biden “for the most part,” but added that his support of McAuliffe “didn’t really factor in” to his decision.
“More for me, McAuliffe was running on his previous experience and that is enough for me,” he said.
McAuliffe, ever since he launched his latest gubernatorial bid, has tied himself to Biden, who won Virginia handily in 2020 and earlier this year remained popular with the party’s base. It was a strategy that worked to help McAuliffe defeat his Democratic primary opponents. Still, as Biden’s administration has lurched on, the President’s popularity has waned.
While McAuliffe has maintained a small leader among registered voters in recent polling — a Monmouth University poll conducted in late September found the Democrat with a 48% to 43% lead over Youngkin — a string of national polls has found Biden’s approval down since August, with a NPR/PBS/Marist poll in late September finding 46% of Americans approving of the way the President has done his job and 46% disapproving. Biden’s approval was markedly higher in early 2021 and through July.
“It is hurting McAuliffe, there is just no question about it,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “My sense of it is if they can get some reasonable compromise passed into law … this would stabilize both Biden and McAuliffe. And if it collapses, I think it will be a nip and tuck race and the momentum would be more with Youngkin than McAuliffe.”
Virginia Democrats have been concerned for months that their party’s broader ecosystem, from super PACs to political organizations to top politicians, have been taking the governor’s race for granted, looking at recent electoral results and believing McAuliffe would easily win a second term. So as much as the tightening polls are worrying to operatives in the commonwealth, they have also helped focus Democratic attention on the race.
McAuliffe rejected the idea that Democrats weren’t engaged enough in the debate on Friday, telling CNN that his October finance report will show “everybody’s on the playing field.”