President Joe Biden on Wednesday confronted a sobering defeat for Democrats in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, adding new pressure to resolve Democratic bickering and pass his social and climate agenda.
In Virginia’s closely watched election for governor on Tuesday, Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a state Biden won by 10 points in the presidential election a year ago.
The loss raised red flags for Democrats over midterm elections in November 2022 that could see them lose control of Congress, making it tough for Biden to advance his agenda in the second half of his presidency.
Inside the White House, officials took the results as a sign they need to get bills through Congress immediately, and that Democrats need a stronger message than “We’re not Donald Trump.”
Biden returned from a Europe trip early on Wednesday to the same struggle he has faced for months: Trying to resolve a bitter dispute between progressive and moderate Democrats over an estimated $1.75 trillion social spending plan and $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
Now, though, the stakes are higher.
“If voters are frustrated with inaction, the obvious response is to be more decisive and pass bills based on an agenda for the middle class that received a record-breaking 81 million votes last year,” said a person familiar with White House thinking. “Doing less is plainly the opposite of what people want.”
Republicans had not won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009. That win foreshadowed congressional election results the following year, in which Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives when Biden was vice president.
Republicans waged a cultural war partly against “critical race theory,” a concept taught in mostly in law schools and universities that maintains racism is ingrained in U.S. law and institutions and that legacies of slavery and segregation have created an uneven playing field for Black Americans.
Democrats, who sought to link Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, now believe it is critical that Biden seal the deal on his spending package, to bolster support for their party, which controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia told CNN that Democrats’ inability to approve the infrastructure bill and give McAuliffe a talking point on the campaign trail contributed to his defeat.
“I think it was on the shoulders of Democrats here who have the majority,” he said. “People had a lot of hope for Joe Biden and the Joe Biden agenda, but Democrats didn’t want to give Biden a win,” he said.
Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries told reporters Democrats would “learn from history.”
“We are going to message with simplicity and repetition” about Democrats’ track-record, he said.
McAuliffe’s loss showed there are limits to the use of Trump in Democratic campaigns, the person close to the White House said.
“It’s incumbent on Democrats to be loud and clear about what we’re for, affirmatively and not just run against Donald Trump,” the source said.
The president spent his nearly week-long overseas trip trying to reassure world leaders in Italy and Scotland that the United States was still a reliable partner after the acrimonious style of his Republican predecessor Trump.
Biden left the country last week after announcing a framework deal on legislation, signaling an end to months of infighting. But on Monday, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who has been at odds with most of his party during the negotiations, said he could not promise a yes vote.
Democrats are looking uneasily at Biden’s declining approval numbers, which could hurt midterm candidates and may have affected the Virginia race. Reuters-Ipsos’ latest polling https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-BIDEN/POLL/nmopagnqapa shows 44% of Americans approve of Biden, down from nearly 60% early in his presidency.
“It would be catastrophic for us not to start passing some legislation immediately,” said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson.
“I’m confident that if we can get this stuff passed, the economy starts to turn around and the supply chains improve, there are opportunities for Biden’s poll numbers to improve. But they’re not going to recover until we get this passed,” he said.
Manchin’s concerns have confounded progressives who frequently point out how popular elements of the social spending plans are with voters, as is the overall plan.
A new Reuters-Ipsos poll, conducted Friday to Monday, found that 51% said the Democratic-led plan would affect them personally in a positive way, while 26% said it would have a negative impact.
Overall, 56% said they supported the plan as they understood it, while 29% opposed it. Some proposed elements of the plan are even more popular, including expanding the Medicare healthcare program for seniors and offering universal prekindergarten.
Democrats inched closer to a deal on Tuesday, agreeing to measures they say will lower prescription drug prices, a top wish for many voters.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the Virginia results flag trouble ahead for Biden.
“People want COVID solved, supply chains solved, inflation solved, other economic problems solved,” he said. “They haven’t seen what they expected to see, which was a very competent president putting a check mark next to each problem as he solved it. That’s what people were expecting after Trump.”