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How Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger pulled off another thriller victory

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) celebrates Tuesday after winning reelection over her challenger, Republican Yesli Vega, in Fredericksburg, Va. (Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images)

Call it a nail-biter, but Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) wasn’t nervous.

In fact, “this was my calmest election,” Spanberger said, a bit over 36 hours removed from what, at least on the outside, looked like a thriller of an election night in one of Virginia’s most competitive swing districts.

Maybe it was because her team knew blue Prince William County was going to come through big, but also maybe because Spanberger has been here before. Her victory Tuesday night over Prince William Board of County Supervisors member Yesli Vega (R) marked the third consecutive campaign in which Spanberger pulled off a win in a challenging political climate or territory, in which she’s depended on maximizing every possible Democratic vote in blue, suburban areas while cutting just enough into rural Republican strongholds.

That appeared once again to be the story in Virginia’s 7th District, considered a toss-up race — only this time, because of redistricting, Spanberger was running in brand-new territory with voters who didn’t know her. Vega hoped to leverage a compelling backstory as a daughter of Salvadoran immigrants to make inroads in diverse, blue eastern Prince William, but Spanberger beat her by more than a 2-to-1 margin in that key battleground. She ultimately won by about four points.

“Abigail is an extraordinary talent,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who campaigned with her often this year. “I mean, I’ve seen a lot of people in politics over my years, and she’s a natural. And people relate to her. There were huge amounts of this district that were new, and while in Prince William she did very well, remember, this was her opponent’s home county.”

Spanberger’s win was among the first indications that Republicans’ anticipated “red wave” on Election Day was not going to materialize. Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, noted that her success was no outlier, given Democrats writ large far exceeded expectations by Wednesday morning. In Virginia, Republicans picked up only one of three seats they targeted — in Virginia Beach-anchored District 2, where state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R) ousted Rep. Elaine Luria (D).

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Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said that in a swing district it also helped Spanberger that Vega had positioned herself in the primary as an antiabortion conservative firebrand, with backing from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and members of the House Freedom Caucus. Vega faltered early on after Axios published a tape in which she appeared to cast doubt on rape-related pregnancy — and Spanberger, in a slew of attack ads, used it to define Vega throughout the campaign, putting her on the defense early. Vega later said the comments had been misconstrued and decried the portrayal of her.

Still, Rozell said, while a more moderate opponent might have led to a tougher campaign for Spanberger, her trio of narrow victories since 2018 likely offers Democrats in competitive turf a road map for hotly contested races.

I think she could be a rising star in the party,” Rozell said, noting — as others have — that Democrats may one day look to her as a potential statewide contender. “She seems to have the right formula in that she can hold the progressive wing of her party and appeal to swing voters. At the same time, she projects the image of a very independent-minded Democrat who is not afraid to differ with her party leadership.”

Her profile might be a bit more difficult to replicate. Spanberger splashed onto the Virginia political scene in 2017 as a former officer in federal law enforcement and the CIA determined to flip a Trump-country seat blue for the first time in 50 years. Illustrating the challenge: The district’s deep conservative roots were evident when Republican voters in 2014 ousted then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — an anomaly for a sitting House leader — opting in the primary for tea party Republican Dave Brat.

But anti-Trump sentiment energized suburban voters in the 2018 blue wave — and a class of Democrats with national security credibility found success appealing to centrist voters in red districts across the country. Spanberger combined that background with her activist ties as a former gun-violence prevention organizer with Moms Demand Action to build a huge grass-roots operation spanning liberal and moderate voters, namely in the Richmond suburbs, which powered her 2018 and 2020 wins.

But Spanberger didn’t have that powerhouse network this year; in the redrawn 7th District, she had to build one from scratch.

Tonya James, chairwoman of the Prince William County Democratic Committee, called Spanberger’s campaign “one of the most effective ground games I’ve seen happen in Virginia politics in a while.”

Compared with Vega’s frequent high-energy rallies with Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), Del. Candi Mundon King (D) thought Spanberger was more effective in person-to-person relationship-building in smaller settings — private dinners with no photo opportunities or stump speeches.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who also frequently campaigned for Spanberger, agreed, noting sometimes voters who came to modest meet-and-greets expecting to hear from Spanberger were taken aback to find she wanted to hear from them first, about the issues top of mind for them.

“I think that makes an impression on people,” Kaine said. “Nobody feels listened to enough, and maybe, even particularly, nobody feels listened to enough by people in politics. And Abigail is like immediately front and center, putting that question out to people in a way that I think left a really positive impression with them.”

Mundon King, who represents parts of Prince William and Stafford counties — the heart of the district — said she met with the congresswoman early on, impressing on her the importance of the numerous diverse communities there, wanting to ensure they would not be glossed over. Spanberger didn’t disappoint, Mundon King said. “She spent time in the Ethiopian community. She spent time in the Ghanaian community. She spent time in West Indian restaurants talking about the issues that impact these communities,” Mundon King said.

And while she often discussed bread-and-butter issues like transportation and infrastructure investments that resonate across the political spectrum in the commuter-heavy district, Mundon King noted, she addressed abortion rights “head on.”

“Her campaign was not afraid to talk about abortion and to talk about the fears, the real fears and anxiety that a lot of women and families were experiencing as they saw their fundamental right to make decisions about their bodies being taken away,” Mundon King said.

Spanberger acknowledged the role that the overturning of Roe v. Wade played in the campaign this year. “I think it played a significant role,” she said, describing it as a key driver of a general sense of “unease” about the future she encountered from voters — or a sense, she said, that everything in politics is “broken.”

That’s part of the reason she aggressively promoted her bipartisan credentials during the campaign, pushing legislation such as a stock-trading ban and police grant funding, even as Vega and national Republicans ran numerous attack ads and repeated applause lines at rallies noting she “votes with Nancy Pelosi 100 percent of the time.” Addressing the criticism, Spanberger said she believes it creates a false narrative of zero-sum, binary politics, where agreement with “the top boogeyman Democrat” means “you are automatically in opposition with all Republicans — when that’s not the case.” In fact, she said, many of the bills did have Republican votes.

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She was fixated early in her tenure on making sure Republican constituents could see her as their representative, too, even if they disagreed. She said she was struck shortly after taking office in 2019 by the number of people who called needing help with Social Security or veterans’ issues — but who seemed to add a caveat: You should know I didn’t vote for her.

“This frenzy around politics, that people would feel the need to be honest and get that out there, thinking it might hurt my inclination to help them — that to me was like a sad reality, which is why the team is so aggressive about, ‘Oh we serve everyone, it doesn’t matter,’ ” Spanberger said.

Spanberger’s appeals on bipartisanship were evident in a campaign ad featuring former Republican Virginia congressman Denver Riggleman that was intended to appeal to crossover voters. “In Congress, the parties sit apart and don’t work together — except Abigail Spanberger,” Riggleman said. In the final days of the campaign, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the former No. 3 leader of House Republicans largely excised by the party for her disavowal of Trump’s false stolen-election claims, also endorsed Spanberger, one of just three congressional Democrats Cheney has backed.

Vega, though she avoided talking about Trump, haltingly accepted his endorsement in the final leg of the race.

Though Vega, who raised nearly $3 million, had to contend with Spanberger’s enormous $8.4 million war chest, national Republicans lent significant help in the race to keep Vega competitive on the airwaves. In the end, Spanberger and national Democrats and PACS spent about $14.5 million on ads compared roughly $12 million by Vega and national Republicans and PACs.

Since the losses, Virginia Republicans have been in somewhat of an intraparty brouhaha assessing why the red wave did not come. Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R) and Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach) both blamed Trump in part, saying that his desire to remain the leader of the party and run in 2024 is hurting Republicans in competitive races — assessments that Trump’s team and some of his big supporters in Virginia have rejected.

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“If there was any time for moderate Democrats to come our way, it was this year,” Anderson said, “And they didn’t, because when they look over at us, all they see is Trump Republicans.”

Rozell, the political scientist, said Republicans might also need to look beyond a “generic” Republican playbook seeking to tie Spanberger to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should they want to beat her in the future, noting he found the attack lacked credibility among voters considering Spanberger has at times spoken out against Democratic leadership and policies.

Kaine and Warner each identified that as one ingredient contributing to Spanberger’s victory Tuesday. She emerged as a vocal critic within the caucus of “defund the police” rhetoric and the Democratic Party’s messaging failures in an underwhelming performance in 2020. And she publicly called for new Democratic House leadership over Pelosi’s handling of legislation Spanberger pushed to ban stock trading among members of Congress. “She’s very blunt,” as Kaine put it, noting she “is who she is,” even if it makes the caucus or the speaker or the White House bristle.

Spanberger’s core strength, Kaine said, is marching to the beat of her own drum.

“If I had any questions about, hmm, after 2021, who is the Virginia electorate? And who’s the kind of person that they will vote for? The results in Virginia last Tuesday night confirmed in my mind, okay, I know who the Virginia electorate is. I know what they’re looking for,” Kaine said.

This article has been updated to add spending totals for both candidates.