The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin’s wins in key congressional districts underline tough reelection bids for vulnerable Va. Democrats

From left: Democratic Reps. Jennifer Wexton, Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria of Virginia. (Photos by Cal Cary, Ryan M. Kelly and Vicki Cronis-Nohe for The Washington Post)

The second reelection campaigns for Virginia Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria were already promising to be nail-biters, regardless of who was in the Virginia governor’s mansion.

Now, after Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe statewide and in both congresswomen’s districts last week — in the first endurance test for Democrats’ blue wave in a post-Trump era — the outlook for vulnerable Democrats in Virginia’s most competitive congressional districts appears even more dicey. And given Democrats hold only a thin majority in the House, the outcomes of these races could prove pivotal in the fight for control of the chamber.

Youngkin defeated McAuliffe by roughly 11 percentage points in Spanberger’s district, anchored in the western Richmond suburbs, and defeated McAuliffe by eight points in Luria’s, anchored in Virginia Beach. And Republican House of Delegates candidates declared victory over three Democratic incumbents in the Hampton Roads area — each of them seats that, like in Luria’s case, flipped during the Trump era — even as two of the races remain uncalled.

The Democratic losses represent a significant red-ward shift in two districts President Biden narrowly won in 2020, and where, in recent years, independents and moderates have proved to be central to making or breaking House incumbents’ reelection bids.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project showed that Republicans increased their vote margin last week in each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts compared to 2017, with Virginia’s 7th District swinging 7.5 points to the right and the 2nd swinging 12.5 points that way. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) narrowly won the 2nd District that year and narrowly lost in the 7th — the only loss for a statewide candidate in either district during President Donald Trump’s administration.

Virginia Republicans rise from the ashes while Democrats ponder what went wrong

Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said Youngkin’s victories in Virginia’s most competitive regions offer a playbook for the Republican candidates ultimately nominated to challenge Spanberger and Luria in November. The most recent election, he said, showed that the inflationary “Trump bubble” — built up with moderate voters’ antipathy toward the former president — has burst, and that successful candidates will need to shift their strategies to adjust for an era in which Trump looms on the fringes but isn’t necessarily motivating swing voters.

“Those moderate Republicans or moderate independents who had been expressing their frustration at Trump basically sat back and said, ‘Okay, since Trump isn’t around, which of these candidates is speaking to the issues I’m concerned about?’ And to be honest with you, Youngkin was doing that, and Terry McAuliffe was talking about Donald Trump,” Kidd said. “The message from the gubernatorial election to the congressional candidates is issues matter, and you’ve got to be able to address the issues voters are concerned about.”

Spokesmen for Spanberger, who was traveling, and Luria said they were not available for an interview on Wednesday.

The Republican gains, perhaps a concerning sign for these two Democrats, also come with big asterisks given the uncertainty still clouding the 2022 congressional campaigns.

For one, it’s still unclear what the congressional districts will even look like. After the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Commission failed to agree on a map, the Virginia Supreme Court took over the task just this week and is only now selecting special masters to assist in drawing new maps.

And while Kidd noted it would be “suicidal” for a Democratic congressional candidate to repeatedly try to tie the Republican challenger to Trump based on the current environment, he added that will also depend on whether the candidate is particularly “Trumpy,” or if Trump announces another run for president. In the 2nd District, for example, one of the Republicans vying for the nomination is Jarome Bell, who still pushes the falsehood that Trump won in the 2020 presidential election and has said people convicted of election fraud should be put to death — then raised money off the ensuing criticism of his remarks.

The national atmosphere for Democrats, depending on the economy, the pandemic, and their ability to unify on major pieces of legislation, is also a big unknown for now.

Still, the Republican enthusiasm that simply outmatched Democrats last week is likely to carry into the next election cycle, and Republicans are expanding their list of targets as a result.

Just a day after the election, the National Republican Campaign Committee announced that it would also be going after Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D), who flipped her formerly red Loudoun County-anchored district during the blue wave in 2018. McAuliffe defeated Youngkin in the district last week — but by a much closer margin than Joe Biden defeated Trump there.

“Virginia’s 10th Congressional District saw a 14-point swing towards Republicans in last week’s election and that spells trouble for Jennifer Wexton,” Camille Gallo, a spokeswoman for the NRCC, said in a statement. “Virginians are rejecting Wexton and the Democrats’ policies that are causing prices on everyday goods to rise, open borders, and skyrocketing crime.”

In an interview, Wexton said Democrats will need to focus on messaging that better illustrates for constituents how Democrats’ major pieces of legislation will impact their daily lives. While months of dysfunction on Capitol Hill over infrastructure and major social-spending legislation created a sour atmosphere for Democrats nationally, Wexton said that in the Virginia election Democrats largely missed the opportunity to talk more about how the American Rescue Plan enabled schools to reopen safely amid the pandemic, for example.

That could have been helpful, she noted, in a year where schools and education were a focal point of the Republican campaigns — and particularly in Wexton’s district.

Loudoun County became one of the most visible battlegrounds nationally on issues such as “parental rights” in education, as parents swarmed Loudoun school board with concerns about critical race theory and policies intended to protect transgender students. Youngkin capitalized on this fervor, and at his rallies, his promises to ban critical race theory in schools — even though it is not part of the Virginia school curriculum — often garnered the most boisterous applause.

How and why Loudoun County became the face of the nation’s culture wars

Wexton said Democrats will probably need to bolster their outreach to parents on the issue of education funding and resources. Focusing too much on Trump, she said, was unpersuasive.

“I think there is so much anxiety among these parents, and I get it,” Wexton said noting her own children were learning from home throughout the pandemic as well. “And I feel like they were probably looking for someone to be responsive and to be empathetic, and maybe they just felt like they weren’t getting that.”

Now it’s that very demographic that Democrats in competitive districts will need to claw back into their corner if they don’t want to lose in 2022, said David Ramadan, a former Republican delegate who represented parts of Loudoun, and who now teaches at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

“That’s a vote that made Virginia purple for Biden, and now it’s swung it back to Youngkin,” Ramadan said, referring to “suburban moms.”

Ramadan said Democrats will have to find a way to take control of the narrative after Republicans have muddied it with claims that they support critical race theory or defunding the police, no matter how often Democrats, including McAuliffe, rebuffed those claims. Ramadan said he thought Spanberger “was right” last year when she criticized far-left language around the “defund the police” movement or democratic socialism as broadly hurting moderate Democrats in competitive districts.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Elena Kuhn said House Democrats would offer “a more compelling proposition than Republicans’ divisive lies” in 2022.

“Virginia Democrats like Abigail Spanberger, Elaine Luria, and Jennifer Wexton safely reopened schools, delivered a tax cut for middle class families, and passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill to fix our roads and bridges and create good-paying jobs,” she said. “Meanwhile, Republicans stand in opposition to economic growth for Virginia families. Heading into 2022, our bet is that Virginians will choose results over division.”

Spanberger recently said in a New York Times podcast that she believed her party was still struggling with messaging problems, especially on the major social-spending and tax package.

Democrats’ months-long quarrel over the top-line figure distracted from benefits of programs within it, such as on climate change, the child tax credit and reducing prescription drug prices, she said.

“Out of the gate we were arguing over a number, and people are still struggling financially and they’re saying, ‘What the hell are you guys doing on Capitol Hill talking about a trillion here, a trillion there?’ ” Spanberger said.

She acknowledged that voting for the package could put her in jeopardy — but, she noted, that was already true with or without Democrats’ social-spending bill.

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.