The race for the Virginia governor’s mansion hadn’t even been called for Republican Glenn Youngkin on Tuesday night before Democrats started pulling their hair out—and pointing fingers.
For a party increasingly nervous about President Joe Biden’s drooping poll numbers and currently entangled in a game of chicken over its entire legislative agenda, Terry McAuliffe’s bruising but not entirely unanticipated loss to first-time candidate Youngkin in the typically blue commonwealth’s off-cycle election was enough to prompt visions of a midterm wipeout next year.
That possibility, which would cost Democrats their control of Congress, was enough to kick off a blame game of epic proportions, with targets ranging from McAuliffe and the national party to progressive lawmakers to centrist lawmakers to the White House’s political operation and its failure to secure an infrastructure package after months of negotiations.
The concern stretched beyond the 2022 midterms, as Democrats expressed fear Tuesday’s results could further embolden former President Donald Trump to seek a second term in the Oval Office.
“The Biden team is mindful of the history when it comes to Virginia governor’s elections—the opposition party has won the governor’s mansion every year since the 1970s,” a source familiar with the White House’s thinking told The Daily Beast ahead of Tuesday’s election (though McAuliffe himself broke the trend in 2013, when he was elected governor during President Barack Obama’s second term).
“But if Trump is really looking at these brushfire races to see if he has a path to running again,” the source said, “then Virginia takes on even more importance.”
The former president, of whom Biden called Youngkin an “acolyte” in his final campaign appearance for McAuliffe in October, lent credence to that theory, crediting his own supporters on Tuesday night for pushing Youngkin over the line—and dismissing concerns that his own toxic brand could be used against down-ballot Republicans.
But as the results came in, progressives and moderates alike publicly criticized the Trump-heavy messaging as backward-looking and misguided.
Few Democrats who spoke to The Daily Beast were inclined to let McAuliffe off the hook as the poor results came in on Election Night. Several spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to yet speak publicly on the race.
“When the Terry team tries to blame the national environment, let's remember their grand strategy after Youngkin was nominated was to call him ‘Trumpkin,’” a Democratic aide said. “His people spent way too much time on Resistance Twitter and it shows.”
The nomination of a fixture of the Democratic establishment—a former governor, Democratic National Committee chair, and lifelong operator—also struck many Democrats, in hindsight, as a misread of the moment. Youngkin, a former private equity CEO, successfully campaigned as an outsider and suburban dad despite his political connections and $400 million net worth.
Multiple Democratic aides lamented, in hindsight, the near-anointing of McAuliffe—hailed as a “safe choice” shortly after a safe choice won the White House—when there were two Black women with strong resumes running in the Democratic primary against him.
Another Democratic aide told The Daily Beast that Trump’s influence on the race, positively or negatively, was at best secondary to the historical trend of Virginia’s off-cycle elections going against the party in power, and the nomination of an unprepossessing candidate.
“I mean, this isn’t necessarily atypical,” the aide texted. “Only time VA voted ~with~ the party in power was when [Ken] Cuccinelli was nominee—an absolute bozo.”
“Maybe now we stop clearing the primaries for Clintonite old white men?” they added.
Some were more forgiving of McAuliffe and his team’s strategy. “He was dealt a tough hand,” said one Democratic operative. They argued that McAuliffe could have done a better job responding to certain Youngkin attacks, but ultimately, “it’s tough being an establishment candidate when voters are looking for change.”
Though McAuliffe largely ran heavily against Trump rather than on his promises to enact changes like a $15 minimum wage, nearly all Democrats agreed that Biden and congressional Democrats could have helped by demonstrating what change under the party’s governance could look like.
When asked what explained Democrats’ wipeout in Virginia, Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic operative from Virginia, had a simple answer. “Failing to get our agenda done in a way that people see and feel may mean nights like tonight are not just in the past, but also in the future,” Ferguson told The Daily Beast.
But Democrats quickly descended into finger-pointing over which faction of the party was responsible for that state of affairs.
Moderate Democrats have long felt that the passage of a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, currently stalled in Congress, would have given Biden’s reputation a sorely needed boost ahead of a race where his unpopularity was clearly a drag on McAuliffe.
Plenty of Democrats, progressive or not, were skeptical that action in Washington would have somehow mattered in the Virginia race. The candidate clearly was not; McAuliffe personally lobbied Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to get the infrastructure legislation passed, according to the New York Times.
But progressives withheld their votes for that legislation until centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) signalled their support for a larger social spending package, which they have so far failed to do.
A senior House Democratic aide argued that advancing the infrastructure bill when it passed the Senate in August would have allowed Biden and Democrats to demonstrate they could govern in a bipartisan way, and given swing voters a reason to show up and vote for Democrats.
“The American people gave us unified control of government to get things done, and so far we have failed the American people,” said the aide, who argued that Biden’s accommodation of progressives has confirmed suspicions among independents that he is further to the left than they thought. “His failure to deliver on something as simple as infrastructure was a proof point on swing voters’ worst fears about the Biden presidency.”
Progressives, meanwhile, put the blame squarely on Manchin, Sinema, and their allies, for withholding support for the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better legislation that Biden has sought to push through Congress. That lack of support has prompted progressives to withhold the infrastructure bill as leverage to pass the broader bill.
In a statement, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a progressive outside group, said that McAuliffe “sadly can blame his loss on a few corporate-aligned obstructionist Democrats who blocked bold action in Congress.”
Hours before the polls closed in Virginia, the president expressed confidence that McAuliffe would be able to break the historical trends and pull off a victory—but added the caveat that even if he did lose to Youngkin, the blame didn’t rest on his own sinking popularity nationally.
"I don’t believe, and I’ve not seen any evidence, that whether or not I am doing well or poorly, whether or not I’ve got my agenda passed or not is going to have any real impact on winning or losing," Biden said during a press conference in Scotland on Tuesday. “Even if we had passed my agenda, I wouldn’t claim we won because Biden’s agenda passed.”
A Democratic source cautioned that blaming the results on Biden would be a failure of imagination, noting that a CNN exit poll of Virginia voters found that only 28 percent believed that Biden was a negative factor on the gubernatorial election.
“One of the biggest issues we have seen in polls is on educational choice, a topic that is local (not on national agenda) and Youngkin ran multiple closing ads focused on,” the Democratic source said. “It’s incumbent on Democrats to be loud and clear about what we’re for, affirmatively and not just run against Donald Trump.”
But even some of the administration’s allies felt that the White House’s difficulty in pulling off the infrastructure package, combined with a political operation that many longtime Bidenworld figures have privately maligned for months, had contributed to the losses in Virginia. One major Biden backer told The Daily Beast that McAuliffe’s loss was exacerbated by an inability—or an unwillingness—by White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, the president’s chief political strategist, to enlist well-connected Democratic donors and fundraisers to support the former governor.
O’Malley Dillon “has no connection to external supporters or validators of the President and in fact actively discourages any such outreach,” the backer said, predicting that a failure to enlist the vast Biden donor network could endanger the Democratic majority in Congress. “Not keeping him connected to major donors of his campaign and party as a whole is literally damaging the party’s prospects of successful midterms.”
Others, however, held out hope that the results in Virginia would light a fire under the administration’s ass.
“This was destined to be a disaster,” one administration official told The Daily Beast resignedly. “Maybe this will help infrastructure and reconciliation—maybe the Democrats will stop being their own worst enemy.”