After Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe—a conservative whose campaign was flush with billionaire cash—fell to Republican private equity mogul Glenn Youngkin in Virginia’s closely watched gubernatorial race on Tuesday, establishment Democrats wasted no time pinning the blame on progressives.
The finger-pointing started days before the polls opened in Virginia, a state that has trended blue in recent years and that President Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points in 2020.
Several conservative Democrats, including Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, suggested leading up to the contest that progressive lawmakers’ refusal to allow a bipartisan infrastructure bill to pass the House without simultaneous approval of a broader reconciliation package could be at least partially to blame for a McAuliffe loss.
“I’ve got to tell you, in Virginia, where we’ve got a gubernatorial race tomorrow, that would have really helped Terry McAuliffe a lot if we had been able to notch that win,” Warner—who, like McAuliffe, previously served as Virginia’s governor—said in an appearance on MSNBC, referencing Democrats’ inability to secure an infrastructure vote last week amid progressive opposition.
Warner expressed the same sentiment on Fox News hours before the Virginia results were reported. “I think it would have helped Terry McAuliffe in Virginia,” the senator said of a vote on the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Tester, for his part, said of his progressive colleagues: “We haven’t gotten anything done. That says enough about their strategy.”
The blame game resumed almost immediately following McAuliffe’s narrow defeat to Youngkin, a millionaire backed by former President Donald Trump and now the first Republican to win statewide office in Virginia since 2009. Politico reporter Heather Caygle tweeted after the race was called that Democratic members of Congress “are already texting me blaming progressives for [the] ‘debacle’ in Virginia.”
Progressives were quick to push back on that narrative, characterizing it as baseless and self-serving on the part of a Democratic establishment that threw its weight behind McAuliffe—the former chair of the Democratic National Committee—in the Virginia gubernatorial primary earlier this year.
Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of Indivisible, noted that “progressives have been earnestly working to deliver on Biden’s full agenda. It’s conservative Dems who’ve ensured that every day for the last several months, the headlines are about how we aren’t delivering paid leave, prescription drug reform, elder care, or voting rights.”
“Did progressives literally have a press conference yesterday for the sole purpose of declaring that a deal was not close? No, that was Joe Manchin,” Greenberg continued. “Progressives were busy trying to pass Biden’s agenda. As far as I’m aware, progressives also did not choose McAuliffe over a new generation of rising Black women leaders, nor did they run his campaign and choose his messaging, nor did they write his debate lines.”
“I don’t want to play the blame game. I’d rather be focusing on what to do next (hint: pass Biden’s agenda),” Greenberg added. “But folks have been working overtime to seed this narrative before the election was even over and it’s important that we be clear: it’s a ridiculous red herring.”
Other prominent progressives also weighed in.
Warren Gunnels, majority staff director for Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), tweeted that “maybe, just maybe, the ‘debacle’ in Virginia could have been avoided if we had a Congress that listened to the overwhelming majority of Americans and passed progressive policies like paid family leave and expanding Medicare instead of bowing down to wealthy campaign contributors.”
Charles Idelson of National Nurses United lamented that “any time a Democrat loses, the party establishment, with the help of the corporate media, always blames progressives, no matter how weak or ‘centrist’ the losing candidate is, and no matter how much the Dem conservatives block reforms that would help the vast majority of people.”
Writing for The Daily Beast late Tuesday, Democratic strategist Max Burns observed that Youngkin’s campaign “centered around the bogeyman of ‘Critical Race Theory,’” not the lack of a timely vote on a bipartisan infrastructure package that Trump and other Republicans have trashed.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, made a similar point earlier this week. “I’ve watched all the attack ads on Terry McAuliffe and not a single one has talked about [infrastructure] not passing,” she said Monday. “They’ve all been about other things.”
In his Daily Beast column, Burns argued that “the worst thing that could possibly happen… is for the party’s conservatives to read McAuliffe’s loss as a sign that Americans are turned off by the Democratic agenda.”
Alluding to fears that the Virginia race is a harbinger for Democratic performance in the 2022 midterm elections, Burns wrote that “there’s one simple trick to averting a Democratic bloodbath next year: Do what voters say they want.”
“A Vox/Data for Progress poll conducted last month found 71% of voters support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and six-in-ten support Biden’s signature spending plan at the full $3.5 trillion,” Burns noted. “These aren’t mere ‘suggestion’ numbers—they’re supermajorities. Democrats ignore those clearly stated wishes at their own electoral peril.”