RICHMOND — After a year of partisan warfare that brought Virginia to the brink of a state government shutdown, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has started showing Republicans so much love that he has some Democrats worried.
The same governor who blasted Republicans last year for “demagoguery, lies, fear and cowardice” has lately heaped praise on them, celebrating their willingness to find common ground in certain areas even as they blocked some of his top priorities.
That dramatic shift in tone is one that legislators and political strategists chalk up to McAuliffe’s “growth” as a governor, his humbling defeat on Medicaid expansion or his desire to shake his lightning-rod image to help his good friend Hillary Rodham Clinton win the swing state.
But it has some Democrats concerned as they head into General Assembly elections with the goal of convincing voters that Republicans are standing in McAuliffe’s way.
“We’ve got . . . to be able to say, ‘These Republicans are impossible to deal with,’ ” said Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax). “I understand the need to put that [positive] message out. But by emphasizing the areas we agree on, it makes it much more difficult to draw contrasts on some of the areas that we think are very important to Northern Virginia voters.”
Others say those concerns are misplaced given how early it is in the election year. The former Democratic National Committee chairman has plenty of time to pivot from tossing out compliments to throwing bombs.
“That’s a typical Virginia two-step: You want everybody to think things are great, and then in the election, you have to make them think it’ll only be great if they vote for your side,” said Tucker Martin, a former spokesman for the previous governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R).
State Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus, said there is no conflict between acknowledging bipartisan achievements in some areas while gearing up to highlight sharp differences in others.
“I think the commonwealth can celebrate that we have a governor that has been able to find common ground with the people across the aisle,” he said. “Obviously, there are places where we differ with Republicans, whether it’s gay rights or gun safety or Medicaid expansion, and we’ll have ample time to drive those points home.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor has good reason to cheer Republicans: He says they’ve moved in his direction.
“The governor’s getting everything he’s asking for,” Coy said, ticking off a number of items included in the budget at McAuliffe’s behest: providing more services for people with severe mental illness, extending a federal health-care program to the children of low-wage state workers, offering dental care to low-income pregnant women, and expanding the school breakfast program.
That list does not include expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the governor’s most prominent campaign promise and the sticking point that led to a months-long budget standoff last year. McAuliffe made a largely symbolic pitch for it this time around, and Republicans quickly rejected it. They did the same with the governor’s efforts to strip domestic abusers of their gun rights, repeal legislation that requires an ultrasound before an abortion and roll back the gay marriage ban that the Supreme Court has already effectively invalidated.
Republicans dispute the notion that they gave McAuliffe all, or even much, of what he wanted this year. Yet some agree that relations with the governor have improved. Dropping the forceful Medicaid push was a big part of that. So was the governor’s intense focus on economic development, a cause championed on both sides of the aisle. A projected $2.4 billion revenue shortfall helped even without fully materializing, as the scare last fall forced Republican budget writers into frequent huddles with McAuliffe.
“There’s no question what we went through last year, finding the cuts needed to balance the budget for the revenue shortfall, helped,” said Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “I think the communication greatly improved between the administration and the legislature.”
Ellen Qualls, a senior adviser to McAuliffe’s campaign now serving as a political consultant to Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), said projecting a bipartisan image is likely to make McAuliffe more popular with voters — and a bigger asset on the stump.
“Being a good governor makes you politically powerful, too, and that helps the Democrats get the Senate, pick up seats in the House and get Hillary Clinton elected” president, she said.
The governor’s current messaging dovetails with Republicans’ strategy to keep the fireworks to a minimum after three straight sessions consumed by hot-button social issues. But it is at odds with what some prominent fellow Democrats are churning out.
Last week, as the governor’s Common Good VA political action committee was touting “great cooperation from the state legislature,” Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) sent an e-mail appeal of his own decrying the “anti-woman, anti-lgbt, anti-middle class Republicans [who] control the Virginia Senate.”
“They’re doing everything they can to obstruct the progress Governor McAuliffe and Lt. Governor Northam are fighting for,” said the e-mail from Northam, who intends to run for governor in 2017.
And when the session ended in late February, McAuliffe cheered “substantive bipartisan cooperation . . . on the priorities that matter most,” while Herring’s take was downright mournful.
“The 2015 Virginia General Assembly adjourned late Friday night, and with it went the hopes of hundreds of thousands of uninsured Virginians,” said Herring, who is often mentioned as contender for governor.
Some Democrats were also uneasy about how McAuliffe weighed in on a national debate over an Indiana law billed as a religious freedom statute, which critics said would allow businesses to refuse to serve gay customers. In a letter to the Indianapolis Star, McAuliffe invited Indiana firms to relocate to “open and welcoming” Virginia, where “we do not discriminate against our friends and neighbors.”
While they appreciate the governor’s leadership on gay rights — banning anti-gay discrimination in state employment and officiating at two gay weddings — some Democrats felt the Indiana appeal papered over Republicans’ continued opposition to gay rights bills.
“It’s frustrating, because there needs to be a contrast when you’re running,” said a Democratic legislator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order not to offend the governor. “What motivates people to come out to vote, sadly, is not, ‘Oh, I’m so happy. Things are going so great.’ What motivates them is overreach by the other side.”
Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax), one of the legislature’s few openly gay members, said there was “a little cognitive dissonance with the reality [of gay rights] here and where the governor wishes it would be.” But he had no objections to McAuliffe’s outreach to Indiana or general emphasis on what he has been able to accomplish with a Republican-controlled legislature.
“People want government that works,” he said, “and to the degree that we show government works, that helps the Democratic Party.”