PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. — Former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger was first elected to Congress in 2018, flipping a Republican seat in what was later dubbed the “Year of the Woman” for the record number of women elected to federal and statewide offices.
Four years later, Spanberger, a moderate Democrat from an exurban Virginia district, is running for reelection to her swing seat amid a different sort of woman-focused movement — one spurred by backlash to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down abortion rights.
Her opponent, Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega, is a foil tailor-made for this moment, a staunchly anti-abortion Republican who appeared to downplay the possibility of pregnancy after rape in surreptitiously recorded comments from June.
Spanberger has leaned into abortion rights as a galvanizing issue for Democrats and swing voters, making her opening argument in a commercial that called Vega “too extreme for Virginia” for supporting a total abortion ban without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.
“It’s an issue that has become front of mind for many people across the country. In our district it’s particularly front of mind, given my opponent’s positioning and the things she’s said,” Spanberger, 43, told HuffPost in an interview this weekend.
“She’s just extreme. The fact that she thinks that it would be appropriate to go to Washington and dictate what happens in the lives of women in what may be some of the hardest moments of their life — it’s an extreme position,” she said.
Elections forecasters give Spanberger the edge as Republicans’ advantage in the midterms seems to be slipping. A top elections forecaster re-rated Virginia’s new 7th Congressional District “Leans Democrat” after calling it a “Toss-Up” earlier this year, reflecting the blowback to the Supreme Court’s rollback of abortion rights and the perceived positive reception of President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
“It’s been choppy,” Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said of his party’s prospects while campaigning for Spanberger on Saturday. “But I feel a heck of a lot better than I did 60 days ago. I think people know what’s at stake. It’s the increasing bizarreness of some of these candidates.”
Abortion, however, was a footnote for both candidates on the campaign trail this weekend following the start of early voting in the midterms — nearly a year since Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won on a pro-parental rights platform as tensions erupted over mask mandates, “critical race theory” and transgender students. The tug of war over schools is still at the forefront in this year’s election, voters from both parties told HuffPost, along with the squeeze of rising inflation on families and the threat of “extremism” as defined by both sides.
“People are concerned about the crumbling economy, yeah? People are concerned about the wide-open border, yes? People are concerned about the safety of their children, yes? People and parents and grandparents are concerned about the education of their children, yes?” Vega, a law enforcement officer, shouted at a rally in Prince William County on Saturday.
“We started a movement here in the Commonwealth of Virginia last year, where we said that parents absolutely matter.”
Vega called Spanberger someone with “no spine, no courage to stand up for the people of the 7th District.”
At one point, Vega mentioned her “favorite president of all time” and drew an “oh man” from the audience when she cited Ronald Reagan and not, presumably, Donald Trump, whom she didn’t mention at all during her remarks.
Vega bristled when asked about appearing to agree with an inaccurate theory that pregnancy is less likely after rape. “Those comments were not the comments that I ever stated,” she told reporters, even though audio of her remarks was made public. She added that the question was posed by a Democratic tracker about a specific study.
“I’ve been very clear on my position,” she said. “I am pro-life. I will always stand up for the defenseless, for the voiceless … Abigail’s party has gone from safe, legal and rare to anywhere, any time, at any point funded by the taxpayers. That is my contrast between me and my opponent, that she’s an extremist when it comes to the issue. I am not.”
Vega’s supporters agreed they’re not the ones with far-out views. “I’m pro-life. If you want to call me an extremist, that’s fine. But I’m very proud I feel that way,” Kathleen Dwight, a retiree from Fredericksburg, Virginia, told HuffPost.
Vega’s comments were an obvious dig at Spanberger, who has portrayed Vega as out of touch with a moderate district that includes many active-duty military members, veterans and government workers. Democrats cite a radio interview in which Vega agreed with the conservative host that Republicans should try to shut down the government in order to choke the Biden administration’s spending, and campaign messages where Vega called the FBI “corrupt” following its legal search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
As the daughter of Salvadorian immigrants, Vega’s supporters say she espouses the values of a region with a growing Latino base that prioritizes safety, education and immigration reform.
“I believe that her message relates to the American Constitution,” said Maria Martin, a former GOP candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates who was born in Bolivia. “We are ready to preserve the lighthouse that is the United States.”
If 2018 was the “Year of the Woman,” then 2022 could end up being the “Year of the Latina.” A record number of Latinas are running for House seats this year, and Vega is one of several from the GOP competing in key races that will determine control of the chamber, where Democrats are clinging to a narrow majority.
Spanberger epitomized the female candidate who ran and won in 2018 — a moderate who was photographed giving her election night victory speech with her 4-year-old daughter playing at her feet. The photos came to illustrate the growing ranks of women and mothers penetrating the male-dominated halls of Congress.
Spanberger won both of her previous races by less than 2 percentage points. Youngkin, not yet a full-fledged MAGA warrior, won what is now the new 7th Congressional District by 5 points, making Spanberger’s task this year still challenging. The district spans the Richmond suburbs and exurban Virginia, with 53% of residents identifying as white and 17% as Latino. Prince William County, where 62% of residents identify as nonwhite, makes up a third of the district.
“Many of us [Latinos] moved to Prince William County with a dream of having our own property, and that might mean having to qualify by having to work three jobs, or it’s a household of single parents or both parents working and that’s what they can afford,” said Democratic Virginia Delegate Elizabeth Guzman. “We want to be respected as any other member of the district.”
Unlike other endangered Democrats, Spanberger isn’t distancing herself from Biden or her party — she declined to bash Biden for his student loan forgiveness order, which some Democrats have called well-intentioned but poorly executed. Instead, she’s emphasizing her desire to reach across the aisle.
“What I’m doing is I’m telling people who I am,” said Spanberger, a wonkish member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who worked on counterterrorism cases as a CIA officer. “I’m a Democrat. I’m a pragmatist. I’m focused on getting things done. I’m a coalition builder. I’m proud to be a bipartisan member of Congress.“
Despite a deeply divided Congress, Spanberger told HuffPost she wants to get along with Republicans — a safe message for a split district. “The idea you get to Congress and all of the sudden you don’t have to talk with half of the people you work with, or half of the people you represent, is a terrible reality,” she said.
Spanberger carried that message to voters at a canvassing kickoff in Prince William County, a once-red, now-purple county that’s new to the district, where Vega happens to be a local official.
Gathered in a supporter’s driveway in a suburban subdivision, Spanberger, dressed in a bright blue blazer, prepped volunteers by encouraging them to highlight her office’s ability to assist with Veterans Affairs and Social Security issues, and to talk about her efforts to pass a congressional stock-trading ban.
“If you look at the Democrats that have won here — Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Joe Biden — these are folks who have strong track records of being bipartisan, strong track records of being workers and not partisan warriors,” said Ben Litchfield, an attorney and Democratic candidate for state Senate.
“There are a lot of Biden-Youngkin voters who are talking about her very positively,” he said.