Today's deep question: Why are Democrats nationalizing McAuliffe's bumbling bid?

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Will Terry McAuliffe derail Joe Biden’s agenda — or will he amplify it? Politico’s analysis of Democratic doom-and-gloom predictions over the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee’s fate can be taken at face value, of course, because a loss in Virginia for Democrats would certainly provide a humiliating rebuke.

On the other hand, though, does anyone else get a whiff of the ol’ briar patch from this?

Losing ground in a Virginia gubernatorial campaign once seen as a near-lock for Democrats, McAuliffe has sought to nationalize the race — calling out congressional inaction and President Joe Biden’s waning popularity as he tries to mount a return to an office he held four years ago. If McAuliffe loses, it could put a chill on Democrats’ agenda and prompt hand-wringing over whether the party failed to boost him enough in a difficult race against Republican Glenn Youngkin. …

The effort has taken a gubernatorial race that amounts to a bellwether for Democrats’ popularity writ large and twinned it to their legislative agenda — if one fails, so too could the other.

“I’m hopeful that everyone will come to their senses by the end of the month,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas). “If things don’t go well [in Virginia], there’s going to be a lot of different reckonings here.”

If McAuliffe doesn’t pull out a win, some pessimistic Democrats privately predicted a “collapse” on Capitol Hill, where party leaders are already struggling to unite sparring progressives and centrists around a roughly $2 trillion social infrastructure package.

The decision to go along with nationalizing the Virginia election seems odd in the first place. Much of what ails McAuliffe in Virginia is McAuliffe himself, after all. He broke a tradition among former governors of the commonwealth in seeking another non-consecutive term, outraging Virginia’s first black governor, Douglas Wilder. Democrats had hoped to nominate a woman of color, but instead, McAuliffe big-footed the primary — and even sought out incumbent governor Ralph “Blackface” Northam, a point that pushed Wilder into attacking McAuliffe:

“You called on Ralph Northam to resign. Now he didn’t resign. Why do you now seek his support and sought his support for your candidacy? I think it’s a legitimate question to ask,” Wilder told Katz.

Wilder followed up his comments with posts to Facebook and Twitter. He suggested that McAuliffe had a hand in accusations of sexual assault levied against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.

“Today, McAuliffe is asking people to vote for that A.G. who served as his attorney general, and seeks the continuing support of Northam. No reasons have been given to the voters as to Terry’s change of mind,” Wilder wrote.

“Nor has any reason been made why McAuliffe felt compelled to violate Virginia’s long-standing precedent by choosing to run again, against persons who had far more experience than he, as he had never held elected office of any kind when he ran.”

Wilder is Virginia’s first African American elected governor. He said, “All of the candidates [McAuliffe] opposed except one, were Black, including two women, whom he felt not qualified to be given the chance that he had been given.”

That’s why McAuliffe wants Barack Obama to come to Virginia — to bless his candidacy with black voters, who may not be any more happy with McAuliffe than Wilder is. One has to wonder why Obama decided to cooperate in that effort, especially after Wilder’s criticisms. Perhaps Obama thinks the risk to Democrats nationwide is too high to risk a snub, too, and there’s certainly a rational basis for that worry. There’s another explanation for that as well, to which we’ll return in a moment.

But again, McAuliffe is really the issue here more than national politics, and not just for the reasons Wilder cites. His declaration that parents should butt out of educational policies that directly impact their children is about as limousine-liberal elitist as it gets. McAuliffe has only now started to walk those comments back, but Youngkin has used McAuliffe’s Kinsleyan gaffes expertly to his advantage. And let’s not forget McAuliffe’s GreenTech scandal that preceded his first gubernatorial run.

That’s the kind of candidate that national parties usually keep at arms’ length, not embrace. So why are Democrats so eager to do the latter with McAuliffe? One explanation: they really are that desperate to keep Virginia’s gubernatorial seat, and only an all-hands-on-deck approach can succeed. Even that is a pretty big admission, though, for a state that Joe Biden won 54/44 in 2020, Hillary Clinton won 50/45 in 2016, and where no Republican currently serves in statewide office. By that logic, any McAuliffe win by a significantly smaller margin is almost as bad as a loss for Democrats trying to salvage their radical agenda on Capitol Hill.

That’s an arguable explanation, but here’s another: Democrats feel fairly comfortable that they will win in Virginia, and want to set up their post-election declaration of the victory as a national mandate. It has become, after all, a fairly reliably blue state in both national and state elections over the past decade-plus. If McAuliffe pulls off the election after Democrats nationalize it, you can bet that very few moments will elapse before the progressive wing declares it a Very Big Message to the moderates in the party — especially for Joe Manchin in neighboring West Virginia. Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal will pound that message at every opportunity to move Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema off of their red lines on reconciliation, in large part by making this an explicit part of the election now.

And that would explain why Obama defied Wilder and ignored McAuliffe’s incompetency to campaign for the ticket. Obama’s heart has always been with the progressives, and by making this big splash and helping to nationalize the Virginia election, Obama makes that progressive post-win push even more potentially effective.

So either Democrats are extremely worried, or they’re more confident than they’re letting on. I’d bet the latter … but I wouldn’t bet that it’s justified. If this backfires on Democrats and progressives, and it just might, they may never recover in the Biden era.