Politico

Progressives: Blame the moderates, not us


Progressives are over it.

Minutes after networks declared Republican Glenn Youngkin the winner of Virginia’s gubernatorial race, strategists, activists and outside groups in the Democratic Party’s left wing began firing the first shots in the intraparty war over who is at fault for Tuesday’s shellacking.

Their message: Blame the moderates in charge, not us.

Their emboldened stance in the wake of the devastating loss for Democrats in Virginia, as well as setbacks in New Jersey, Minneapolis and Buffalo, N.Y., suggests that progressives will not change course ahead of the 2022 midterms — even as the GOP vows to anchor a comeback around critical race theory.

Instead, the left is determined to win the battle over the narrative of 2021, the outcome of which could help shape how Democrats campaign next year. They argue that in order to both inspire the party base and win over swing voters like suburban women, Democrats need to pass bold policies such as paid parental leave, prescription drug reform and Medicare expansion. And they point out that neither Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe, nor President Joe Biden, come from their camp.

“No matter whether or not you run a progressive, no matter whether progressives had any influence at all in the campaign strategy, somehow it is the reaction of some in the party to find a progressive to blame when things don’t go well,” said Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of Indivisible, a prominent liberal advocacy group, on Wednesday. “What we saw last night is that the assumed safe candidate is not necessarily a safe candidate, and at some point people have to look and take accountability for their assumptions themselves.”

Progressives’ rapid-fire response to Tuesday’s results stems from yearslong frustration with being a post-election punching bag. There are lingering hard feelings over moderates’ attempts to pin disappointing races in 2020 on them. And already, they are able to claim one victory in the fight over the path forward: House Democrats decided to put four weeks of paid family and medical leave back into their “Build Back Better” plan.

Republicans, meanwhile, say they’re thrilled that the left isn’t backing down before the midterm election.

“It’s honestly head-scratching, like what planet are you on?” said Zack Roday, a Virginia-based GOP consultant involved in 2022 gubernatorial and Senate races around the country. “They’re going to overreach — history shows us that and their own statements in the present show us that. And if they overreach, I think that’s at direct odds with what the voters asked for in 2020 with Biden and reasserted in 2021 with these off-year elections.”

Several progressives said they were prepared to go on the offense after Tuesday’s elections because party moderates telegraphed that they would blame them for McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia before polls even closed — plus, they said, centrists do this to them every election cycle.

More than one pointed to remarks by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) a day before the election on cable TV, in which he discussed the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Until they reversed course this week, progressives had been holding up that legislation in order to pass Biden’s social spending plan.

“As somebody who wished we would have gone ahead and voted on the bipartisan infrastructure bill in September, I think we could have given the president a big win,” Warner said on MSNBC. “In Virginia, where we’ve got a gubernatorial race tomorrow, that would have really helped Terry McAuliffe a lot if we’d been able to notch that win.”


Adam Jentleson, who served as the deputy chief-of-staff for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said it became clear last week that moderates would attempt to blame progressives, and the fact that the infrastructure bill didn’t pass, in the event of a McAuliffe loss. “And so we knew we had to have a strategy,” he said.

Immediately after ABC and NBC called the Virginia governor’s race after midnight, the progressive groups Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement, United We Dream Action and Battle Born Collective released a statement that lit into McAuliffe’s campaign, calling it “milquetoast” and blaming the “DC establishment” for lining up “behind their one-time rainmaker” and thus sidelining “two potentially history-making Black women running for the same office,” a reference to the primary challengers McAuliffe defeated to claim the nomination in June.

The groups also chided Democrats for failing to combat “the GOP’s divide-and-conquer racism,” a knock on the McAuliffe team’s handling of “critical race theory” attacks. Jentleson is the executive director of Battle Born Collective.

Even before the gubernatorial race was called for Youngkin, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group aligned with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, took a thinly veiled shot at moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for dragging their feet on, and watering down, Biden’s social spending bill.

“More Virginians would have voted Democratic if they had child care and if Democrats had accomplished what we promised for years: lower-price prescriptions, paid family leave, long-term care for the elderly, and vision and dental care paid for by taxing billionaires,” the organization said in a statement. “Terry McAuliffe sadly can blame his loss on a few corporate-aligned, obstructionist Democrats who blocked bold action in Congress, plus his own reliance on backward-looking Trump messaging.”


Progressive candidates also looked to quickly shape the narrative in the wake of the election. In a memo to his surrogates and allies, which was obtained by POLITICO, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s campaign for Senate wrote that “if we learned anything last night, it’s that Democrats can’t continue to completely cede rural counties to Republicans” and made the case that he is the candidate who can cut into Republicans’ margins of victory in those areas.

“Democrats cannot afford to run the same old playbook or the same old Washington candidate” in the Pennsylvania Senate race, it read.

Some progressive leaders, meanwhile, sought to lower the temperature among Democrats.

“I am not in the blame game here. I’m about trying to get things done, and we’re going to pass both these bills through the House,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told POLITICO. “That’s what I took from last night’s election, is that families across the country are hurting and they want us to help them, and that’s what we’re going to do with the Build Back Better agenda.”

But across Twitter, many on the left took a different approach. In response to a report that moderates were privately blaming progressives for the loss in Virginia, Nina Turner, Bernie Sanders’ former 2020 campaign co-chair, tweeted, “Maybe centrist Democrats should pass policies that are popular with the American people.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar retweeted a progressive commentator who chirped, “Can’t wait for the left to be blamed for a not at all left democrat losing a D+10 state.”

She added a facepalm emoji.

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