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In Virginia’s 7th, GOP race to take on Spanberger is anybody’s game

Republican candidates in Virginia’s 7th District were joined by one state Senate candidate at Unionville Brewing Co. on May 27. From left: Spotsylvania County Board Supervisor David Ross, Stafford County Board Chairman Crystal Vanuch, Prince William County Board Supervisor Yesli Vega, state Senate candidate Mike Allers Sr. and Derrick Anderson. (Meagan Flynn /The Washington Post)
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Bryce Reeves was right at home in Spotsylvania County, but — locked in a tight six-way race in one of the state’s most competitive congressional GOP primaries — the state senator still had to make his case.

In the back of a Baptist church shaped like a cross — the meeting space for Reeves’s local GOP committee — he pitched himself to the crowd of Republican voters.

“Let me tell you why we’re ready to go to Congress today,” Reeves (Spotsylvania) said. “Some say I’m a politician. Some say I’m ‘the establishment.’ But let me tell you the difference: I’ve been in office 10 years. We’ve done a lot of things.”

Reeves, arguably the most visible public official in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District GOP primary, is hoping a decade-long track record in the state Senate is what Republican voters will turn to June 21 as they select the nominee who will take on Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) in November. While Reeves, a former Prince William County narcotics officer and Army veteran, calls himself the “front-runner” in the race, numerous firebrand local officials — Yesli Vega, Crystal Vanuch and David Ross — each are vying for the spotlight.

And one first-time candidate — Derrick Anderson, a combat veteran and former Green Beret — mounted an aggressive ground-game that numerous voters said impressed them. He’s betting on almost the exact opposite strategy from Reeves.

“I’m a true political outsider,” Anderson told a pavilion full of voters at a brewery in Unionville, Va., at the tail end of a speech last month. “I’ve never run for office, nor have I ever held office. … And Virginians are ready for change.”

“Whoo!” one voter affirmed from the crowd.

The stakes are high for Republicans in this newly redrawn district, expected to be one of the most-watched congressional races nationally as Republicans seek to take control of the U.S. House. And though Republicans acknowledge Spanberger will be a tough opponent, they see her as particularly vulnerable this year, given the poor national environment for Democrats and because she was drawn out of the 7th District, now anchored in the Fredericksburg area.

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Veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth said ideally Republicans will want to elect someone who is a bit more moderate to compete with Spanberger in a year where hot-button issues like abortion and gun policy are likely to dominate. None of the candidates, however, have presented themselves as moderates, Holsworth noted, which is not uncommon in a primary. The candidates have all stressed their opposition to abortion and, in the days after the Uvalde, Tex., mass shooting, strong support for gun rights.

While former president Donald Trump has been largely absent from their discourse, the Virginia Democratic Party indicated it plans to make the Jan. 6 Capitol riot part of the race, highlighting in one ad how all the 7th District GOP candidates said they did not believe the attack on the Capitol was an “insurrection.”

Trump lost the district in the 2020 election — but Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) won it in 2021.

“That just shows you: We really don’t know which way this district leans for good,” Holsworth said. “So that’s why Republicans think they certainly have an even chance in the district.”

Vega touts work for Youngkin

Back at the Unionville brewery, at an event hosted by the Conservative Parents of Orange County, Vega took the microphone for her turn to ask for the crowd’s vote, yelling over the torrential rain that pounded on the pavilion’s tin roof.

“Let me tell you something: A lot of people talk about supporting the police,” Vega said. “Try wearing the uniform today and displaying the badge.”

Vega, an auxiliary Prince William sheriff’s deputy, told the crowd she was inspired to join law enforcement after her brother was victimized by the MS-13 gang and his friend was killed. Vega, a daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, was elected to the county board of supervisors as a political newcomer in 2019 and as the first Latina board member.

Some of her tough stances on immigration enforcement — fighting unsuccessfully, for example, to preserve the sheriff’s office’s 287(g) program that allowed deputies to turn over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities — divided the county’s sizable Hispanic population. Before long, Vega emerged as a fiery provocateur in some of the board’s more dramatic meetings, joining two fellow Republicans in walking out on unconscious bias training and confronting liberal activists who called her a racist in the aftermath of George Floyd’s police killing. “By the way, the daughter of immigrants is a white supremacist,” Vega cracked in her speech. “They’ve called me everything. But I’m still standing.”

First Latina to be elected in her blue-leaning county. But she’s a Republican and an object of hate.

She has since curried favor with some right-wing stalwarts, earning endorsements from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), Corey Stewart and Virginia “Ginni” Thomas (days after the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas fell under scrutiny for her efforts encouraging White House officials to overturn the 2020 election).

In her speech, Vega talked up her work as co-chair of Latinos for Youngkin, noting she “actually has the ability to turn out the vote like never before.” The district is about 15 percent Hispanic. And while Vega lives just outside the district, the populous portion of Prince William County included in the 7th could still give her a powerful boost, Holsworth noted.

Several voters at the event said Vega’s energy caught their attention. One, Cher Morey, said Vega “outshined everyone else,” leaving Morey leaning toward voting for her. “I think she’s got the passion and the fire,” Morey said. “It’s that spirit of leadership — she’s fearless.”

But that same presentation has turned off others. Her co-chair on the Latinos for Youngkin Coalition, Daniel Cortez, who identifies as an independent, decided to join Latinos for Reeves, where he serves as co-chair. He said in an interview that Vega “needs more experience” and that he didn’t believe she could appeal to independents. Cortez, who works as a mentor in a Spotsylvania veterans’ treatment court, said he voted early for Reeves, citing his work on veterans’ issues in the state Senate.

Reeves has campaigned on his record in the state Senate on everything including tax breaks for veterans, foster-care restructuring and gun rights, noting in an interview the passage of his bipartisan bill to expand concealed-carry in the state while restricting abusive dating partners from owning guns. The National Rifle Association endorsed him in the race on Tuesday.

But having a long record has made him vulnerable as well. A couple of voters said in interviews that they were upset about his vote on a bipartisan bill giving schools discretion not to report certain misdemeanors to police. Reeves said the vote was intended to revise schools’ stringent “zero tolerance” policies for treating minor fights or roughhousing as misdemeanor assault, saying whether to file charges should be up to parents in the spirit of a parents’ rights bill he led several years ago.

“Gov. [George] Allen, I think, has the best quote ever: When you’re the ball carrier on the football field, and you’re trying to run to the end zone, everybody’s trying to tackle you,” Reeves said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

Anderson stakes out outsider’s path

He entered the race with no political experience and by its last quarter had outraised every other Republican candidate, hauling in a total of more than $520,000 and edging out Reeves.

Now, Anderson is trying to pull off the upset.

“We are going to outwork everyone in this race, to include Abigail Spanberger,” he told the crowd at the Conservative Parents event.

Holsworth said “political outsider” positioning has proved to play well lately in Republican circles, noting the victories of Youngkin, a former private-equity executive, and retired Navy captain and political newcomer Hung Cao last month in Virginia’s 10th District.

“That may create an opportunity [for Anderson],” Holsworth said. “Certainly Youngkin did that to a great advantage. Cao did that to a great advantage, so I think the officeholders on the Republican side are probably a little wary.”

Like Anderson, Cao came into the race with no name recognition or experience but mounted an impressive grass-roots campaign. And like Anderson, Cao also says he got into the race after watching the deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan. Cao endorsed Anderson shortly after winning the nomination in the May 21 convention, saying that “it’s not the time for bureaucrats and politicians in Congress. It’s time for warriors like Derrick Anderson who will continue to fight for our Constitution.”

He beat the best-funded GOP candidate in Virginia’s 10th. Meet Hung Cao.

Speaking at the Unionville brewery, Anderson took a temperate tone, avoiding ideological rhetoric, throwing in a fair amount of momma’s-boy jokes and otherwise focusing on the kind of bread-and-butter issues integral to the 7th, like agriculture and transportation and veterans’ health care. He said he wanted to serve in Congress on the committees with oversight of those issues. And he talked up his experience as the only 7th District candidate who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that made him the best to challenge Spanberger, a former CIA officer, on national security issues. He said in an interview that he believed this was the “year of the veteran.”

Numerous voters said they thought Anderson’s combat experience made him a good fit for the district, including Larry Scott, who co-founded the Conservative Parents of Orange County during the pandemic while frustrated with public health restrictions.

“Derrick is really easy to talk to, almost like a friend,” Scott said, quickly adding, “And I know politicians aren’t supposed to be your friend.” But something clicked with Anderson, he said. “He’s very approachable. He’s proven to work harder than anyone in the campaign.”

Steve Maxwell, a Spotsylvania voter, veteran and police officer at the Pentagon, said he was drawn to Anderson’s “passion for veteran causes” as well as his blank slate in politics. “Derrick’s not been polluted by politics,” Maxwell said in the parking lot outside the Baptist church in Spotsylvania, after hearing both Reeves and Anderson address the GOP committee.

His friend Wanda Stroh chimed in, though, to note her reservations about Anderson’s lack of a track record in public office, illustrating how the attribute is a strength or a weakness depending on whom you ask. Stroh was settled on supporting her local Spotsylvania board supervisor, David Ross — showing, too, how some of the other candidates are able to leverage popularity in their home turfs to make a dent in the race. Stroh said Ross had a conservative record that she trusted, and liked that he was campaigning on abolishing the U.S. Education Department, believing the federal government was “meddling in our schools.”

Ross, a Marine veteran who has served on the county board of supervisors for a little over a decade, has emphasized his stances as a staunchly conservative born-again Christian, seeking to join Good on the House Freedom Caucus if elected. He has put parental rights in education at the center of his campaign and, he noted onstage at the Unionville brewery, advocates to “bring God back into our schools” — a sentiment Vega echoed.

“What I feel like I’m fighting for, I know Dave can help me with,” said Stroh, adding that she became a volunteer door-knocker to help his campaign. Still, she added: “Everywhere I turn around I see Derrick Anderson. We shake hands and share a mint.”

Vanuch, who is Stafford County Board chairman, is competing to some degree with Vega on a message of strong support for law enforcement, emphasizing her push to give pay raises to police, plus her support for defunding schools that threaten to teach critical race theory. She poured $400,000 of her personal money into her campaign coffers to be competitive financially with Anderson, Reeves and Vega — though as Cao’s underdog victory proved, money isn’t everything.

Gina Ciarcia, a former teacher, is also running, though has not been competitive with the other candidates in fundraising or endorsements.

Just weeks away from the primary, while many voters expressed support for Reeves, Anderson and Vega, about just as many told The Washington Post they were undecided, indicating the race could be about anybody’s game.

“Honestly, I think everyone’s head is spinning right now,” said one undecided voter, John Buge, outside the GOP meeting at the church in Fredericksburg. “It’s going to come down to the last guy that banged on their doors.”