Retiring senator drops ‘bombshell’ on McAuliffe, Medicaid expansion


HE’S OUT: Democratic Sen. Phillip Puckett’s resignation shifts the balance of power to Republicans.

By Kenric Ward | Virginia Bureau

RICHMOND, Va. — A Democrat senator’s surprise resignation could resolve Virginia’s budget showdown by undercutting Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s bid to expand Medicaid.

“This is not necessarily the death knell, but the governor’s plan was rushed to the emergency room today,” said Steve Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

The departure of Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Tazewell, gives Republicans a 20-19 majority in the Senate. And the Capitol swirled with speculation about his reasons.

Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw, of Springfield, tamped down conspiracy theories that Republicans gave Puckett a golden parachute to leave.

“The Republicans are not authorized to make a deal. They’re as shocked as we are,” Saslaw told Watchdog.

Despite GOP jubilation over regaining control of the Senate — at least until a special election is called — Saslaw vowed that Medicaid expansion will remain part of the budget.

“Our goal is to settle this budget — with Medicaid in it,” he said.

Three Senate Republicans — Emmett Hanger, Walter Stosch and John Watkins — support expanding Medicaid to 400,000 Virginians. Watkins wrote the “Marketplace Virginia” plan adopted by the Senate.

But Puckett’s departure shuffles the political deck. Hanger, Stosch and Watkins are up for election next year in GOP districts where voters take a dim view of Medicaid expansion — as do all other Republican senators.

Meanwhile, the July 1 state budget deadline looms.

“It’s a bombshell,” Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said of Puckett’s retirement. “It doesn’t kill Medicaid expansion … but we lose control of the process. The tide has clearly turned.”

“This put the onus on the governor,” Farnsworth said. “The General Assembly may find it a lot easier to compromise” now that both houses are controlled by Republicans. The House budget does not include Medicaid expansion.

It forces the governor to use the veto — or decouple Medicaid expansion from the budget, the professor said.

As Watchdog reported Friday, McAuliffe’s stare-down over expansion is fraught with political peril.

“If he plays the strong-arm game, it’s over for him,” said Mike Thompson, president and chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

“Any attempt at unilateral action poisons the well for three years.”

If the executive and legislative branches fail to enact a budget on time, Farnsworth predicts the matter will end up in court.

“Like so many things, it will all be in the hands of the judges,” he said.

Puckett’s seat will be filled in a special election scheduled by the Senate as long as it remains in session. The earliest date would be in July.

Democrats’ chances of holding Southwest Virginia’s 38th District are iffy. Farnsworth calls it a “60 percent Republican district” and said Puckett was the most vulnerable Senate Democrat heading into 2015.

Saslaw says Democrats won’t go down without a fight.

“We are not conceding (Puckett’s seat) and we’ll spend whatever it takes,” he said.

Kenric Ward is chief of’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward