The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Virginia, candidates in tight congressional races make closing pitches

Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger speaks during a campaign event outside an early-voting site in Dumfries, Va., on Oct. 25. She's facing Republican Yesli Vega in the general election. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported when polls open in Virginia on Election Day. They open at 6 a.m. This version has been corrected.

In the final sprint of the campaign, Virginia’s most vulnerable incumbent Democrats are making their closing arguments as their Republican opponents keep the pressure on, whipping up enthusiasm with almost daily pep rallies mostly headlined by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

With no one else at the top of the ticket to energize voters, all eyes will be on Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria, who are vying to hang on to their seats in a pair of the nation’s most competitive (and expensive) races. The toss-up contests are as good a bellwether as anywhere, with Democrats depending on battle-tested incumbents like those in the 2nd and 7th districts if they want to retain any hope of keeping Congress, and Republicans chomping at the bit to oust them. With major investments from the national GOP, Republicans are hopeful of a red wave the size of the blue one that carried Spanberger, Luria and Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) into office four years ago.

“That red wave has got its headwaters right in the commonwealth of Virginia and it’s sweeping across the nation,” Youngkin said at a Tuesday night rally in Culpeper for Spanberger’s Republican challenger, Prince William Board of County Supervisors member Yesli Vega.

Wexton’s race against retired Navy captain Hung Cao in the 10th District is considered less competitive than the other two, with political analysts projecting that a Republican “megawave” is needed to flip the seat, making the outcome and margin in the race a key indicator of how well Republicans do Tuesday.

After a campaign dominated by a push-and-pull over inflation and abortion rights, the Democratic incumbents have turned to closing arguments beyond those issues, while Republicans press harder on the pedal on economic concerns and a tough-on-crime message.

Luria, the lone vulnerable Democrat serving on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, chose to spotlight that service in her closing one-minute ad. Spanberger, with a heavy focus on small businesses, is trumpeting an endorsement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has traditionally more often backed Republicans. And all three Virginia Democratic incumbents in more contested races — Luria, Spanberger and Wexton — have joined a nationwide pivot among Democrats to a closing message accusing Republicans of wanting to gut Social Security and Medicare, as the three incumbents did in an rare joint news conference Tuesday.

Democrats attack GOP over entitlements, with abortion leaving some unmoved

President Biden issued the same warning Tuesday in a speech in Florida, taking aim at Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who released a controversial plan suggesting all federal programs, including Social Security and Medicare, expire after five years unless renewed. Scott has denied his proposal equates to gutting the programs, a rebuttal corroborated by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. Other Republican proposals suggest raising the age of eligibility for Social Security.

But Democrats have also pointed to comments from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who told Punchbowl News that the GOP, if it wins the majority, intended to use the debt-limit debate to force government spending cuts. Those discussions could include Social Security or Medicare, though McCarthy said he would not “predetermine” anything when asked if the programs may see cuts.

“Seniors have echoed to me time and again how concerned they are about this issue, and we just wanted to spend some time this morning talking about the fact that we stand firmly behind protecting Social Security and Medicare,” Luria said at the news conference, before accusing her opponent, state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), a geriatric nurse practitioner, of wanting to join McCarthy in gutting the entitlement programs.

“Elaine’s desperate accusation is categorically false and yet another blatant lie she is peddling to salvage her failing campaign in the final days of the race,” a campaign spokesman for Kiggans said in a statement, adding that she “will not touch Social Security and Medicare benefits for anyone receiving them or is near to receiving them — period.”

Luria has been locked in a dead heat against Kiggans, who just this week got some phone-banking help from former vice president Mike Pence and has been drumming up enthusiasm with Youngkin, sometimes in matching red vests, at regular rallies. Kiggans has run a campaign hewing strictly to a message on inflation and the economy while leveraging Biden’s low approval rating, constantly tying Luria to him and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She stuck to that message in a closing ad as well.

“Whether it’s at home, or in the Navy, or in the clinic, I learned that while we don’t always agree, we can find common ground,” Kiggans said in the ad. “But my opponent, she only agrees with the Biden-Pelosi agenda, voting with them 99 percent of the time.”

Mark Bergman, a Democratic strategist for congressional candidates across the country and former adviser to Ralph Northam during his tenure as Virginia governor, said that with polls showing the national environment in Republicans’ favor, Virginia’s vulnerable Democratic incumbents would need to rely on the attributes that set them apart from “generic Democrats” if they wanted a chance to survive a bad night for the party.

For Spanberger, he noted, that’s a background in the CIA in counterterrorism and as a former federal law enforcement officer with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, allowing her to more easily fend off attacks from Vega, who also boasts a background in law enforcement, that Spanberger wants to “defund” police. And for Luria, a retired Navy commander and a defense hawk in Congress, it’s her service on the committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Early voters lament high prices and disunity, yet vote for opposite sides

While anti-Trump sentiment largely powered the 2018 blue wave, especially in the Virginia suburbs, Luria has been the rare Democrat to continue to leverage that sentiment in her closing message. She released an ad this week condemning stolen-election lies and highlighting her service on the committee investigating the insurrection, which she has called the most important work of her professional life.

“If standing up for what’s right means losing an election, so be it,” Luria says against fleeting clips of the riot, Donald Trump, and Kiggans’s shying away from answering whether President Biden was legitimately elected, a question she would not answer throughout the campaign.

Dave Wasserman, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Luria “stands alone as a Democrat who has staked her reelection on democracy issues.”

“And yet she remains the underdog because of redistricting,” he said, noting changes to the 2nd District that made it redder, giving Republicans a built-in edge.

Some voters in Virginia Beach said they found Luria’s appeals regarding democracy persuasive. Mark Johnson, a Virginia Beach resident who serves in the Navy, said he used to identify as a moderate Republican but, after the Trump era, is squarely with the Democrats, feeling particularly unnerved by false claims about the 2020 election.

“It’s hard to be in the middle now, right? You really kind of have to decide,” Johnson, 49, said while also stressing that he was not speaking for the military, only himself. “The most recent ad that really resonated with me was when they were showing a clip from Representative Luria saying that Senator Kiggans is unfit to serve because she’s an election denier, and, you know, that’s hard to argue with.”

Other centrist voters felt turned off by a continued focus on Jan. 6, wanting their chosen candidate to put that dark chapter — and Trump and the 2020 election — in the rearview mirror. “We need to be done with that,” said Eric Elliott, a 58-year-old airline pilot in Suffolk who identifies as an independent. He said he was fed up with inflation and gas prices and liked what he has heard from Kiggans about focusing on economic issues.

“I want to change something. And so the only way to do that is to change which party is in power,” he said.

In Virginia’s 7th District, Spanberger has been closing out the race with bipartisan appeals, emphasizing cutting taxes for small businesses, strengthening U.S. manufacturing to compete with China, and also putting her national security credentials front and center — something she planned to do in an appearance with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Friday as well.

“I work with anyone to get things done, just like I did when I was in the CIA and in law enforcement,” she said in one of her final ads.

A guide to the 2022 Virginia general election

The race began overwhelmingly as a referendum on abortion rights, after audio of Vega casting doubt on whether rape could lead to pregnancy was leaked just days after she won her Republican primary in June. Spanberger repeatedly criticized Vega over the comments (which Vega weeks later argued were misconstrued) while accusing her of wanting to ban abortion nationwide without exception. Vega later said she does support exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Indeed, numerous Democratic voters casting early votes in the 7th District said in interviews that they were galvanized to protect abortion rights. “That was a big issue in my life when we lost Roe v. Wade,” said one Spanberger voter, 67-year-old Joyce Wilcox, a retired health lab worker who grew up in Falls Church. “I don’t want to see kids having to do what I saw with my friends in high school.”

But with so many other economic issues competing for attention, Wasserman said the abortion issue alone won’t get Democrats across the finish line, at least not in Virginia.

“Some Democrats predicted Spanberger would pull away from Vega after the primary by pounding her on the abortion issue on the D.C. airwaves. That doesn’t appear to have happened,” said Wasserman; the Cook Political Report moved the race to a “toss-up” status just last week.

Vega, he said, didn’t help herself in the swing district by forging an identity as the “anti-establishment” candidate in the primary aligned with some of Congress’s most conservative archetypes, including in the House Freedom Caucus. She has since been endorsed by former president Donald Trump, an endorsement she largely downplayed by equating it to that of any voter in the district, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has spent over $100,000 through his PAC supporting her and stumping for her.

But she’s also “attempting to make inroads in traditionally Democratic communities by drawing on her Salvadoran ancestry, and that is her pathway to victory here,” Wasserman said. “It’s less about ideology and more about biography, and we’ll see if it works.”

Vega’s closing appeal in a new ad is in Spanish, in fact, opening with old photos of her parents, who came to the United States fleeing civil war in El Salvador. “Our stories unite us,” the daughter of immigrants says against an image of the Statue of Liberty, before images of Spanberger and Pelosi appear. “The politicians in Washington continue to ignore us, threatening our way of life,” Vega says.

Hispanic voters could be ‘key’ in competitive Vega-Spanberger race

Collectively, the candidates and party PACs have spent more than $26 million on the 7th District race, making it one of the most expensive in the nation (particularly given that it is in the Washington media market). And House leadership in both parties spent roughly $4 million each, even as both Spanberger and Vega spoke against party leadership.

Vega said she would not support McCarthy for speaker during the primary — though said his work to win control of the House “earned” her support before appearing with him at a fundraiser for her campaign after her nomination.

Spanberger, who hasn’t voted for Pelosi for speaker in the past, called for new House leadership over Pelosi’s handling of stock-trading ban legislation that Spanberger had prioritized, distancing herself from the speaker as Republicans pummeled her on the airwaves for voting with Pelosi “100 percent of the time.”

Vega’s supporters knew the refrain well. “Spanberger voted all the way with Biden and Nancy Pelosi, right with them,” one Vega voter, Diane White, a hairdresser in Fredericksburg, said after casting an early vote last week, noting that she was hoping Vega would support Trump and his policies, be tough on crime and get a handle on the economy.

So far, over 735,000 people have voted early in Virginia as of Wednesday, and early voting ends Saturday. Polls will open at 6 a.m. Tuesday, Election Day.

Marc Fisher and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.

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