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Abortion, economy electrify contest between Spanberger, Vega

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) speaks at a rally near her office in Woodbridge on Sept. 24. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)

It was perhaps the clearest picture yet that Election Day was just 45 days away: The hay bales had come out, stacked in the bed of a trailer hooked up to a bright red pickup truck functioning as a makeshift stage for Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).

“To people in Prince William County, I am so glad to have the opportunity to be a new candidate in your eyes,” Spanberger told the voters gathered in the Woodbridge parking lot.

Highlighting the county’s importance in this critical race in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, both Spanberger and her Republican challenger Yesli Vega, a member of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, held competing rallies here hours apart, offering voters a look at the messaging that each is using to motivate voters as early voting continues in Virginia.

Spanberger, a former CIA officer who is no stranger to nail-biter campaigns, is seeking to hold onto her seat in a midterm election year where Republicans are angling to oust her on their way to taking control of the House. The district’s extension into the Northern Virginia exurbs — entirely new territory for Spanberger — made it bluer. But in seeking to flip the seat red, Vega has been hoping to leverage a compelling backstory as the first Latina and daughter of immigrants elected in Prince William County, along with voters’ broad dissatisfaction with President Biden and the economy.

The race has attracted millions of dollars in spending on ads — setting up a battle in messaging with Republicans hammering on the economy and Democrats hammering on abortion, hoping to galvanize women following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.

But that is exactly where political analysts see Vega’s greatest liability, potentially weakening the GOP’s ability to flip this key seat in their bid to take control of the House: Multiple attack ads have highlighted comments Vega made earlier this year appearing to cast doubt on whether women can get pregnant after being raped.

And on a September Saturday, as Vega gave a speech during her own campaign rally just miles away, she merely alluded to the elephant in the room, saying the attacks are only motivating her more.

“It doesn’t matter how hard they try to slander,” she said. “The harder they come after us, the harder we’re gonna fight!”

Dave Wasserman, an analyst of U.S. House races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, identified Virginia’s 7th District as among the types of races across the country that will determine control of the House — in part because of the added challenge Republicans have to flip it after self-inflicted errors. Whether Vega can withstand them is about as big a question mark as whether Spanberger can withstand the broad Republican advantage on the economy, as polling has shown, contributing to a slight edge Republicans have nationally in competitive districts.

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“This district stands out as one of the handful of places where the Republican primary enhanced Democrats’ chances of holding a seat,” Wasserman said, referencing Vega’s alignment with members of the Trump-allied House Freedom Caucus.

He also pointed to Spanberger’s huge war chest. Spanberger has spent more than $4 million on broadcast ads, highlighting efforts to work with Republicans on a wide range of bipartisan legislation including police funding and a stock-trading ban to appeal to centrist voters — alongside the abortion attacks, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. That’s compared with virtually no broadcast spending from Vega, though VPAP records millions from national Republicans to make up the difference, evidence of the importance of the district to the GOP in controlling Congress.

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“The difficulty as I see it for Vega is, unlike Glenn Youngkin, she’s at a significant financial disadvantage, and she’s being out-communicated by Spanberger every step of the way,” Wasserman said, referring to Virginia’s multimillionaire Republican governor. “If Spanberger controls the narrative and makes it about Vega’s position on abortion, then it will be very difficult for Vega to break through.”

On Saturday, nobody had trouble hearing Vega.

Just before 9:30 a.m., over 100 of Vega’s supporters packed into her campaign headquarters in an office building in Triangle, Va. — the kind of enthusiastic bright-and-early turnout her backers see as evidence of momentum being on her side. They roared as Vega made her way to the stage and shook hands with supporters, as Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blared on the speakers.

“Hello, fellow patriots!” Vega said as she took the stage. She said she didn’t need the mic, before continuing in a kind of sustained yell with the energy of a pastor’s daughter and kids’ soccer coach.

Supporters who attended said they were drawn to Vega for reasons ranging from her background in law enforcement to Vega’s family’s immigration story.

Mario Beckles, a 57-year-old voter from Montclair, said her family’s story resonated with him as the son of immigrants from Central America as well, believing they shared the same values. He noted that public safety and strengthening the economy were the issues motivating him this year. “I want to sustain the same reasons that brought my family to this country for my kids,” he said.

Vega, an auxiliary Prince William County Sheriff’s Office deputy and former police officer, was elected to the county board in 2019 and saw her profile in state politics rise after co-chairing Youngkin’s Latino outreach efforts last year. She has largely capitalized on some of the same themes that helped vault Youngkin to victory — the economy, crime and parental rights in schools and curriculum.

Yesli Vega: a new provocateur in Prince William County

“We started a movement here in the commonwealth last year where we said that parents absolutely matter, and guess what? We made a statement last year in November, did we not?” Vega said during her speech at the rally.

“Yes!” the crowd responded.

Vega’s speech functioned as a tour de force in exciting Republican voters, mirroring their own concerns in this year’s election ranging from a “crumbling economy” to a “wide-open border,” while sprinkling in attacks on Spanberger. “She takes a trip to El Salvador, my parents’ birth country, to talk about illegal migration and organized crime. How about taking care of your home first? How ’bout that!” she said to cheers.

State Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), whom Vega defeated in the primary and who stumped for her Saturday, said he believed Vega’s economic message would triumph in turning out the all-important independent or centrist voters, particularly when the majority of others were already decided on partisan issues.

“It’s about turnout at this point. People are solidified in their political views and how they view the country and the direction the country is going,” he said. “You look at Biden’s approval rating, whether Spanberger wants to believe it or not, she’s tied to him at the hip with her voting record.”

Despite Democrats’ focus on the issue, Vega did not get into abortion during her speech.

She took a pair of questions from reporters in a gaggle afterward, both of which sought to clarify the inaccurate comments she made about rape and pregnancy earlier this year. In audio published by Axios, an unidentified person tells Vega she has “heard it’s harder for a women to get pregnant if she’s been raped,” to which Vega says, “I haven’t seen any studies. But if I’m processing what you’re saying, it wouldn’t surprise me, because it’s not something happening organically. Right? You’re forcing it.”

Vega said “those were not the comments I ever stated.” But she declined to elaborate, only noting that the person questioning her — who she said was a Democratic operative — was talking about a study. She stated her general opposition to abortion and accused Democrats of supporting abortion “at any point,” calling Spanberger extreme.

Spanberger has repeatedly sought to disqualify Vega for the taped comments, amplifying Vega’s opposition to abortion in multiple ads that accuse her of wanting to ban abortion nationally without exception. (Vega has said she supports exceptions to abortion bans.)

Spanberger said Republican attacks ignore the painful experiences of women in later stages of pregnancy who could learn a pregnancy is no longer viable or that their life could be at risk if it continues and may seek an abortion for those reasons — decisions she said should be between women and physicians, not lawmakers.

“That [decision] is happening in the most tragic and heartbreaking of circumstances,” Spanberger said. “So to ever categorize the fact that I would say I defer to doctors, I defer to health-care professionals, I defer to women and the people who guide them through these experiences — that’s the reality of where I am. That’s the reality of where any of our legislation is.”

In an interview on Wednesday morning, Vega said abortion-related attacks on her were “appalling” and not representative of her. But she demurred on elaborating on her positions on specific abortion policies. Asked whether she would support the 15-week abortion ban introduced by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) or the Life at Conception Act, extending equal protection to fetuses, Vega said she was not familiar with the bills. She noted too many members of Congress make the mistake of talking about supporting legislation without doing their homework or due diligence.

“I’ve never read them, I don’t know what all of them say, so I’m not going to give you a response because I don’t know what you’re talking about," she said. “I’m going to have to look at these once I get there. I’ve been very direct in terms of where I stand on this issue. I believe in the sanctity of life, and that most Americans believe in the sanctity of life.”

She reiterated that the Supreme Court got it right by allowing states to decide abortion policy.

Bob Holsworth, a veteran Virginia political analyst, doubted voters would buy that abortion is just a state issue. “Voters are very unlikely to see the issue in this particular election with that kind of nuance,” he said.

Still, he said, it’s “difficult to underestimate" the power of Republicans’ focus on pocketbook issues, as Vega has done. In her most recent ad, funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee, Vega appeared at a grocery store shopping for food for her family while decrying high prices.

Vega said Wednesday that if elected, she would seek to lower inflation and costs for families by focusing on cutting spending and supporting proposals to lower taxes. “The taxpayers always end up on the losing end of things when it comes to government spending, so we have to reevaluate what we’re doing and get control of spending,” she said.

She has zeroed in on Spanberger’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act — which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated won’t materially impact inflation — and called the vote “tone deaf” in a strained economy. But Spanberger argued the anticipated health-care cost savings for families and seniors contained in the bill and provisions to lower prescription drug costs — a key priority of hers in past campaigns — made her question why Vega would oppose the bill, regardless of its title.

“This bill could have been called the ABCDEFG bill and I would have voted for it, because this bill matters, and matters to people I represent,” Spanberger said in an interview about the vote, noting the bill would also shrink the deficit, albeit minimally, and make major investments in rural conservation programs and combating climate change.

Despite Republicans’ focus on inflation, in the parallel universes of the candidates’ Prince William rallies, Spanberger sounded a different note, seeking to excite voters based on her record in Congress.

Spanberger has centered a stock-trading ban. Pelosi says a vote is coming.

“This eastern part of Prince William County, there’s no question it’s the Democratic base of the 7th congressional turnout, and the turnout from it is extremely critical in terms of Abigail’s ability to win the seat,” said Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who represents parts of the 7th.

During the rally, Spanberger framed abortion rights within a much broader legislative record — one Democrats are hoping won’t be lost to voters amid the onslaught of Republican criticism about inflation and the economy.

She talked about forthcoming bridge and road repairs enabled by the infrastructure package — which resonates particularly with voters in the commuter-heavy county full of federal workers or government contractors.

On her vote on gun restrictions earlier this year, the first major action Congress has taken on gun violence in decades, Spanberger said, “being able to tell the families and victims of gun violence who I represent that I cast that vote with their child’s name and memory in mind has been among the most meaningful things I have ever done as a member of Congress.”

She moved from police and mental health funding to the PACT Act, allowing veterans to more easily access treatment for toxic exposures. She highlighted her vote to codify Roe v. Wade alongside federal protections for same-sex marriage. Throughout the duration, she did not mention Vega.