The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kiggans, Vega to define GOP direction in Virginia swing districts

Yesli Vega celebrates her Republican primary win in the 7th Congressional District race during an election night event June 21 in Woodbridge, Va. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

With matchups set in Virginia’s two most competitive districts, Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger are gearing up for a tough campaign season, as Democrats rush to shape the narrative and the GOP heralds the pair of women Republicans nominated Tuesday as their best shot to flip the districts red.

Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District will see a contest between two Navy veterans: Luria, a former Navy commander who worked in the Navy’s nuclear power program and on combatant ships, and state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), a former Navy helicopter pilot. And in Virginia’s 7th, Prince William County Board Supervisor Yesli Vega’s victory means two women with different law enforcement backgrounds will go toe to toe: Vega, a Prince William auxiliary sheriff’s deputy, and Spanberger, who worked as an investigator with the U.S. Postal Service law enforcement arm before becoming a CIA officer.

The races have the potential to play a key role in Republicans’ push to retake control of the U.S. House, which could dramatically reshape the country’s direction. Republicans are hoping to replicate the blue wave in 2018 that carried Spanberger, Luria and Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) into office — but this time led by conservative women.

Va. Republicans pick two women to take on Luria, Spanberger in November

Julie Conway, the executive director of Value in Electing Women PAC, which backed both Vega and Kiggans, said their victories send “an obvious signal that voters appreciate the need to have more women in Congress.”

“We saw the start of it in 2020 — the Republican women who were successful in 2020. Republicans flipped 15 seats, and 11 of them are women,” Conway said. “I think Kiggans is exceptionally well positioned to do that, and I think once Vega starts getting out the message that she genuinely believes in and what she stands for and what she wants to do, I think there’s a strong path for her, too.”

GOP women’s record-breaking success reflects party’s major shift on recruiting and supporting female candidates

Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said he considers Kiggans the favorite heading into the general election, given that redistricting made the 2nd District swing a few points in Republicans’ favor in what is already a bad national atmosphere for Democrats. Wasserman said Vega’s candidacy probably presents a small setback for Republicans as she garnered “the late momentum from the MAGA activists” in a district that went for President Biden and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

Still, he said, Cook has rated both races “toss-ups.”

“The common thread is that Republican primary voters are nominating candidates who don’t look or sound like Donald Trump in a lot of races,” he said. “Vega embraces Trump’s message, but as a Hispanic woman, defies the stereotype of the Republican Party. Kiggans comes across as a pragmatist rather than a firebreather, even though Democrats will hit her for voting for so-called election integrity bills in the state Senate. But she is first and foremost running as a Navy veteran, and that could help deflect Democrats’ attacks that she is an ideologue.”

Vega was still riding high Wednesday afternoon when she appeared alongside Youngkin at an event in Woodbridge, Va. “What a great night last night,” Youngkin said, pumping up the crowd for Vega.

“Prince William County, thank you so much!” she said — thanking voters in her home turf who gave her a huge boost in the six-way GOP primary, despite otherwise sluggish turnout. “We are going to flip the 7th Congressional District red.”

Throughout the campaign, Vega combined a compelling story as the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants who turned to law enforcement with a hard appeal to base voters. She found allies in Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.); Reps. Bob Good (R-Va.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus; and conservative activists including Corey Stewart and Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, who is the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and is under scrutiny for efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

But while Vega kept some divisive political figures in her company, she also touted an ability to expand the GOP tent with a knack for outreach to Hispanic voters as the former Latinos for Youngkin co-chair. And on Tuesday night she underscored her achievement as “the first conservative Hispanic to win a Republican congressional primary in Virginia,” calling it a “historic moment for Hispanics across Virginia and our nation.”

Astrid Gamez, an immigrant from Venezuela and chairwoman of the Latino National Republican Coalition of Virginia, said Vega’s win “means a lot,” and to her was more evidence of the momentum and the opportunity the GOP has to redefine the party.

“Sometimes people feel like the Republican Party is a bunch of White rich people,” Gamez said. “And I’m not rich, I’m not White. I have my values and love my values, and I will fight for my values, and I feel like there are a lot of people who are going to find out it’s not about skin color, it’s not about money — it’s about values. Look at what happened with [Virginia Lt. Gov.] Winsome Sears when she won — this is a new time for the Republican Party.”

She said she believes some immigrants or first-generation Americans who vote Republican have abandoned the Democratic Party because of broken promises about fixing the immigration system. And she said she appreciated Vega’s focus on getting a handle on illegal immigration at the southern border — a message Vega broadcast on the eve of the election on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

Still, Gamez said she lost some Democratic Hispanic friends and had disagreements with family members because of her outspokenness in support of Republicans. And in a diverse and more blue-learning area like Prince William County — the largest jurisdiction included in the 7th District — Vega may run into similar issues, and in fact she already has while on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, where her tougher stances on immigration divided Hispanics in the county.

“Certainly [Republicans] hope she’ll be able to make significant inroads with Latinos in the area, but at the same time, her positions and the people supporting her most vocally are the most Trumpist wing of the Republican Party,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Virginia political analyst.

Wasserman said Vega’s strong backing from conservative heavy-hitters may have made her stand out in the crowded primary field to help her on her way to victory — but at a cost.

“Her stoking of the base allowed her to win this primary, but it could be fatal in the general election, considering this is a pretty middle-of-the-road district that voted for Biden and Youngkin by similar margins,” Wasserman said. “There are plenty of independent voters who voted for Youngkin who could be persuaded against voting for Vega. Spanberger begins the general election with a large cash advantage and can try to define Vega as unhinged and associate her with far-right figures before Vega can define herself.”

Spanberger and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee already got a head start. On Tuesday night, before results were even out, Spanberger said all of her potential Republican opponents were “far too extreme,” noting they opposed “commonsense gun violence prevention proposals” and abortion, among other things. Vega had previously celebrated the Supreme Court’s leaked opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

In a statement Wednesday, Luria’s campaign went after Kiggans for a vote she took in support of a $70 million audit of Virginia’s election results, calling her an “election denier” and saying Kiggans was “more interested in auditing the 2020 election and partisan posturing to score cheap political points than the issues that matter most to Hampton Roads.” Kiggans previously defended the vote in an interview with The Washington Post as being reflective of the concerns of her constituents about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and wouldn’t say whether she herself believed there was fraud. She told WTKR in response to Luria’s criticism Wednesday: “I’ll say this. Joe Biden lives in the White House and I wish that he didn’t.”

Emily Cherniack — the founder of New Politics, which backs bipartisan candidates with military or national security backgrounds and supports Spanberger and Luria — said that she did believe Kiggans and Vega were “formidable” opponents. But she said she still believed the incumbents would hang on because both have “demonstrated they’re willing to take courageous stands.” Cherniack pointed to Luria’s service on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — “which she knows in a swing district could be a challenging role for her, and she still does it because she believes it’s the right thing to do for democracy.”

She said Spanberger would “buck the party if need be,” noting she has pointedly pushed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to ban members from trading stocks despite Pelosi’s initial pushback.

“We all have to remember — it’s easy to forget, in 2018, with the quote-unquote ‘blue wave,’ Abigail Spanberger’s district was significantly red, and she won,” Cherniack said. “And even in a year where there was energy for the Democratic candidates, she really overcame significant barriers, which I think says a lot about how great of a candidate she really is.”

Conway, of the Value in Electing Women PAC, said that as much as she loved Vega’s and Kiggans’s victories, part of her wished they didn’t have to be running against Spanberger and Luria. “Certainly I want more Republican women — but I’d find a lot more joy if they were running against old White male Democrats,” she said.