The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wexton, Cao spar over inflation, abortion in latest VA10 debate

Republican and retired Navy captain Hung Cao, left, debated Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D) this week. (From left: Hung Cao campaign; AP Photo/Steve Helber)
7 min

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin carried the 10th District in his campaign last year. He lost the district by a slim margin. The article has been corrected.

Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and her Republican opponent, Navy veteran Hung Cao, met for the second time this week to debate in the heat of one of Virginia’s more contentious congressional races this year.

Inflation and abortion kicked off the 90-minute forum Wednesday night, capturing the divides on two issues that have largely defined the campaign narratives in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District and beyond as the nation reels from inflation at a 40-year high and wrestles with the fallout of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Wexton, a former domestic-violence prosecutor and state legislator who flipped her Northern Virginia district blue in 2018, is still widely considered to have the upper hand in the race. But while the district is not nearly as competitive as Virginia’s 7th and 2nd, Republicans have been energized after Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) lost the 10th District last year by only a slim margin, believing they could replicate that momentum this year due to President Biden’s low approval rating and continuing economic woes. Cao, a Vietnamese refugee who served 25 years in the Navy, retiring as a captain, is a first-time candidate.

The forum, co-hosted by the nonpartisan Prince William Committee of 100 and local chapter of the League of Women Voters, was moderated by Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

The candidates were asked first to explain what they believed caused high inflation and what should be done to fix it.

Inflation explained: How prices took off

Wexton said it was not due to “any one cause,” noting multiple factors including a “pandemic economy,” supply-chain issues causing a supply-and-demand mismatch and shortages, and the war in Ukraine.

“We’ve worked very hard to lower food and fuel costs through legislation,” Wexton said. “Also the Inflation Reduction Act is going to make a big difference in people’s lives by cutting the costs of health care premiums, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and also helping to decrease costs for energy.”

U.S. policymakers misjudged inflation threat until it was too late

Economists don’t believe the Inflation Reduction Act, despite its name, will meaningfully impact inflation — something Cao was quick to hammer on. But as Wexton noted, the legislation is expected to lower household energy costs by offering rebates or tax credits for home green-energy upgrades that could save people hundreds per year.

Analysis: Why the ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ is no such thing

Cao traced inflation to Biden’s day-one executive orders that sought to reverse the Trump administration’s relaxation of environmental regulations, which is not what most economists point to in explaining inflation. Cao decried regulations on oil and gas companies and Biden’s order revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

“We can be energy-independent. That’s what caused inflation,” Cao said. "[We should] be able to rely on our own oil and gas instead of other countries.”

5 ways the Inflation Reduction Act could save you money

Questions on abortion led to some of the most impassioned responses of the night. Farnsworth asked the candidates what federal action they would take on abortion, considering there are multiple pieces of legislation in Congress pending right now, chief among them a 15-week abortion ban proposed by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

Cao, however, stuck to the party line that has emerged among numerous Republican congressional candidates, who continue to insist abortion policy is a state issue even as Graham has pledged to push the federal legislation forward if Republicans win control of Congress.

“First of all, what you’re trying to ask is where I stand. I’m pro-life, that’s where I’ll always be, in every single thing I do,” Cao said. “My opponent, on the other hand, wants abortion up to the moment of birth. Most Americans do not agree with that. The Dobbs case put this matter back where it belongs, which is in the states. As a federal legislator, this is not within our purview.”

Wexton disputed Cao’s attack. “It’s a lie when my opponent says I favor abortion up to the moment of birth,” she said. “That’s absurd — it doesn’t exist. That’s called infanticide. That’s not something anyone would support.”

She noted that she voted to codify Roe v. Wade and that Cao, in supporting the overturning of a constitutional right to abortion, in turn supports allowing states to ban abortion, and possibly even access to contraception. Cao disputed the part about contraception, calling that “fearmongering” and an issue separate from abortion.

On other issues, Cao frequently invoked his family’s story. Reacting to Biden’s executive action to forgive some student loan debt, Cao noted that, as he grew up in a family of refugees his parents “tucked away every single penny.” “A lot of American families are doing the same things,” he said. “It’s unfair that what we’re saving for our kids, some kids get a free ride.”

Wexton said she was glad Biden was taking student debt seriously but that the plan was not targeted enough and did nothing to make college more affordable. She pointed to legislation she supports in Congress to expand Pell Grants, incentivize state investments in public colleges and increase dual enrollment programs to lower the cost of tuition.

The two clashed starkly on issues ranging from climate change to school shootings, with Cao calling for more school security guards and Wexton calling for universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.

Gun debate looms again in Va. congressional district miles from NRA

When Farnsworth asked the candidates if they acknowledged the threat of climate change, Wexton said there was “no question” climate change was caused by humans, pointing to increasing wildfires and deadly storms. “This is something extremely important in thinking about what kind of planet we’re going to leave for our kids, whether we’re going to pay for it now or pay for it later,” she said.

But Cao seemed to suggest climate change was not America’s problem. He echoed President Donald Trump’s incorrect theory that a lack of raking the forest floor, rather than climate change, was fueling the increasing wildfires in California.

“If you ever wonder why forest fires stop right at the California border, it’s because they don’t do anything to rake the forest,” Cao said. He added: “Look, America has one of the cleanest, safest practices for petroleum, oil recovery and resources recovery,” calling for holding nations such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran accountable for their emissions.

Wexton noted that reducing emissions is a global effort and is why she applauded Biden for recommitting the United States to the Paris Climate Accord.

The candidates disagreed as well about the removal of Confederate monuments from federal property — something Wexton pushed for in the U.S. Capitol itself, replacing Virginia’s statue of Robert E. Lee with one of civil rights leader Barbara Johns.

Cao said history shouldn’t be erased, arguing that Lee, who enslaved people, “hated” slavery. Lee did once in a letter refer to slavery as a “moral & political evil” — but then in the next breath called it a “painful discipline” that was “necessary for their instruction as a race.”

Analysis: Let's get real about Robert E. Lee and slavery

In closing statements, Cao went after Wexton for repeatedly calling him an “extremist,” drawing on his military background.

“I’ve bled and fought for this country,” he said. “And you’ve used an insane name time and time again that you use for terrorists. Ladies and gentleman, I’ve commanded thousands of soldier sailors in my lifetime, and I knew that some of them didn’t believe the same things I did, but I represented them anyway, because it was my job.”

“I called Mr. Cao an extremist because his views are extreme,” Wexton retorted, pointing to incorrect comments Cao made after the Uvalde, Tex., mass shooting arguing that more people died by bludgeoning than gunshot wounds, among other things.

National Republicans had identified Virginia’s 10th District as being on their wish list of seats to flip this year, but they have put few funds into the race, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project, leaving Wexton dominant on the airwaves.