RICHMOND — They had already donned their suit jackets, clipped on their microphones and shaken the hands of some of the more than 200 voters who had come to a Unitarian church to see them face off. Five minutes until the debate, and it’s the moment to decide which candidate will speak first.
A coin teetering on the thumb of the moderator is launched into the air.
“Heads,” calls Abigail Spanberger, a blond woman dressed in salmon pink. Tails goes to her opponent, Dan Ward, a dark-haired man suited in navy blue.
They are vying for the Democratic nomination for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, a seat now held by Republican Dave Brat. Before him, it belonged to Eric Cantor, who served as House majority leader, and to decades of other male Republicans. But this year, there is talk of a “blue wave” overtaking Virginia, including, maybe, this district west of Richmond. Come November, Democrats believe there is a chance that the next representative in Congress from the 7th District could be, as they like to call the candidates: Dan or Abigail.
First, voters will choose between them in the primary on Tuesday, June 12. Complicating that choice is how uncannily similar their options appear to be. Abigail and Dan are both first-time candidates. They both have backgrounds in defense; him in the Marines and the State Department, her in the CIA. The views espoused on their websites are nearly identical.
To the ordinary voter there is one immediately noticeable difference: She’s a woman. He’s a man.
The coin lands. The moderator’s palm smacks the back of his hand.
One small advantage for Abigail, in a race when the question is whether — in this year after #MeToo and the Women’s March — being a woman makes a candidate more likely to win.
Dan tugs at his collar. Four minutes until the debate. “It’s getting a little warm in there,” he says. “Is there any way you could turn the AC on?”
“I think,” Abigail says, “it feels great.”
With eight hours until the debate, Dan sat in his farmhouse dining room preparing to deal with what he considers a thorny topic: "Women's issues."
“So, this is the year of the woman. Can you both talk about what you’re doing to advance the cause of women in politics?” Dan’s campaign manager, Spencer White, asked, playing the role of moderator.
“Man, that is such a layup for her,” Dan said, leaning on a walnut table he built. “The implicit question here is, ‘Why are you running?’ ”
“The question could be, ‘If you support women running, why don’t you drop out right now?’ ” Spencer said.
“It’s just a BS question,” Dan said, sighing. “I know it’s coming, but it’s like they are saying you cannot run. It’s also very un-American . . . . It pisses me off to be asked that question.”
Dan took a moment to gather himself. He knew all about the historic surge in women running for office, more than 430 for Congress alone. People were calling 2018 a repeat of the 1992 “year of the woman.” And so far this year, the Center for American Women and Politics estimates that for non-incumbent Democrats, 46 percent of women have won their House primaries compared with 22 percent of men.
Dan began to answer the question as if onstage. “I support that movement completely,” he said.
“I would name it,” Spencer said.
“What do you call it?” Dan said. “Equality? I support equality 100 percent . . . . At the same time, though, I also support what I am trying to do.”
Tonight would be the 17th joint appearance between the two candidates, but the stakes were higher than ever. This would be the first debate without notes. The primary was less than two weeks away. And, perhaps most daunting, the event was scheduled to last two hours.
“Should we ask them if they’d be interested in making it an hour and a half?” Dan said.
Spencer texted Abigail’s campaign manager to ask.
Despite seeing himself as the underdog, Dan maintained a casual confidence. He wore a “Health Care Voter” T-shirt that fit snugly around his biceps. He let out his goldendoodles, Cooper and Bernie (yes, named after Sen. Bernie Sanders), then took a 45-minute nap. When a local political organizer swung by to talk, the visit ended with a chat about cigars, and a gift straight from Cuba.
“Keep that in a humidor, baby,” Dan said.
On his mind were the ways he wanted to distinguish himself from Abigail: As a Marine, he could take a tough stance on gun control without being seen as a gun grabber. As a farmer, he could talk about agricultural issues important to the rural parts of the district. As a pilot who is a proud member of a union, he could argue vociferously for single-payer health care.
Dan said that, as a man and as a veteran, it’s hard to convince people that he’s the more progressive candidate, which could hurt him in a primary. He’s a feminist, he says, and believes the year of the woman is a good thing. Just not necessarily for his prospects.
“She’s had the red carpet laid out for her in the national media,” he said, referring to coverage of Abigail by Glamour, Time and MSNBC. “And gender is really the only reason why.”
Dan has been running for 11 months and has raised, according to a May 31 Federal Election Commission report, $900,709.95, but he feels he can’t get the coverage he deserves. Still, he says he has to tread lightly on issues of gender or he risks accidentally looking like a “raging misogynistic jerk.”
“As a Marine, my instincts are to fight,” he said. “But my team says no. I can’t come across as a bully.”
"I can't say anything negative about him, because then I'm a bully," Abigail said as she walked into her campaign headquarters in Henrico, a 1½ -hour drive from Dan's farm in Orange. There were four hours until the debate, and Abigail had already dropped her daughter at preschool, taken a meeting at a Planned Parenthood and stopped by a gathering of a Democratic women's group, where she was told, "Knock him dead tonight, sweetie" and "Kick his ass, please."
She planned to do just that at the polls, but tonight on the debate stage, she knew there were unwritten rules to play by, even in “the year of the woman.” Before launching her campaign, she took a candidate-training course for women that introduced her to the ways that gender could influence her candidacy.
She must explain why her experience as a CIA officer and an education consultant prepared her to run for office before telling her life story; data shows that voters assume male candidates are qualified, but female candidates must prove their qualifications. She learned that voters will support a male candidate they don’t like if they think he is competent, but women must be both competent and “likable.”
“I have to not be boring,” Abigail said. “I’m incredibly passionate, but I can get so focused that I can seem emotionless.”
“I’m sorry, but when you’re out on the streets and you think a terrorist might be following you,” she continued, referring to her time as an undercover operative, “you’ve got to be emotionless.”
Now she has to show emotion, but not be emotional; be polite, but ask for money; be active on Twitter, but ignore the users calling her “Sloppy Spanberger.” Is all of this about gender, or is it just politics? Eleven months of campaigning, $903,519.89 raised, 100 “meet and greets” with voters, and she still wasn’t sure.
She tries not to spend much time thinking about it, even when women say to her in tones of deep concern, “It’s a conservative district; a woman can’t win” and “Are you sure your family is okay?” Or when people assume that the one man on her staff is her campaign manager.
On the afternoon of the debate, Abigail’s actual campaign manager, Dana Bye, ignored a text from Dan’s team asking that the debate be shortened. Her candidate had a thick notebook filled with ideas, statistics and details of legislation she supports, nearly all of which was memorized. She followed Abigail into her small office and closed the door to drown out the sound of volunteers making phone calls to voters.
“I would love to hear your intro,” Dana said.
Abigail stood up behind her desk, held up a yellow highlighter as if it was a microphone and took a deep breath.
“Good evening,” she said. “My name is Abigail Spanberger, and I am running for the Democratic —”
“Hold on!” Dana cut her off. “Go down, not up. Not Spanberger” — she mimicked the way Abigail’s voice lilted up at the word — “It’s not a question. It’s your name, damn it.”
“Right,” Abigail said. “That’s a lady tip.” Research shows higher-pitched voices are considered to be less trustworthy.
She began again, this time with her voice deeper, her words slower: “Good evening. My name is Abigail Spanberger . . . ”
"Good evening, everybody," Dan says as the microphone attached to his ear screeches, sending a reverb through the Unitarian church.
“Whoa,” he says. He adjusts the microphone, his confidence undiminished. He paces onstage, accentuating his points with a Bill Clinton thumb thrust (“2018 is going to go down in history as a significant year, whether it’s a significant year in the good way or the bad way is to be determined.”). He nearly shouts. (“The rule of law is under assault! Reason is under assault!”)
When the moderator introduces “Miss Spanberger,” Abigail steps up the lectern. She motions with both hands and shifts her weight from foot to foot. (“We deserve a representative who will work day in and day out to make the lives of her constituents better.”) She puts her qualifications first. (“I worked overseas and domestically, and I was working to keep this country safe from a terrorist threat.”)
Before arriving, they had both debated with their campaign managers about what to wear. Abigail chose heels, because they made her taller than Dan, but opted for “sensible wedges.” Dan agreed to wear a suit instead of jeans, but he refused to put on a tie.
Because the debate’s hosts are the area’s self-described secular, science-minded and LGBTQ communities, most the questions focus on the separation of church and state, the importance of political civility and the role the government should play in daily life.
Dan says the word “folks” more than 40 times. Abigail mentions her children once. He has no problem blaming Republicans alone for lack of progress on global warming. She says there ought to be a bipartisan solution. He rallies in favor of single-payer health care. She describes the medical debt burdening her friend with breast cancer, letting her voice crack — but in a moment, she’s back to sounding determined.
Two hours of questions, and still the issue of gender hasn’t come up. No “women’s issues.” No feminism. No #MeToo. The candidates are polite and almost always answer as if they alone are on the stage.
Then comes the very last question, asked by a woman in the audience: If someone from your staff were accused of sexual assault, how would you handle it?
Abigail says the person would be fired, and she would call the police. Dan, citing his military experience, mentions Tailhook, the sexual assault scandal that rocked the Navy and Marine Corps in the 1990s, saying it provided a model response: “It is training; it is education; and doing what’s right.”
With that, the pleasantry is gone. Abigail adjusts her dress, then starts in on a rebuttal. Her tone is measured but angry as she recounts the assaults committed by members of the armed services. “We continue to see problems in our military,” she says, “So I don’t think that is a good model for how we handle those sorts of criminal acts.”
“So I guess you’re saying that education and training is not a model?” Dan fires back. “Because that’s what I just said.”
She grips the lectern. He defends himself.
“Okay,” the moderator says, and then it’s time for closing statements and handshakes and group photos.
After the debate, Dan and his team drive to the D.C. suburbs to meet with members of a painters union the next day in search of their support. On the ride up, he’d conclude the final exchange was, perhaps, “not my finest moment.”
He’d worry the audience may have seen him as “some guy who didn’t get it,” even if he felt that what he’d said was “absolutely correct.”
“Overall, though,” he’d recount, “I had someone come up to me after the debate and say he’d scored it like a boxing match. I won eight questions, she won two and 14 were a draw.”
Abigail, on her way to her 101st voter meet-and-greet the next day, felt good about the debate, too. “If they thought I was overreacting, perhaps they don’t understand how profound the issue is,” she would say. “I spoke up for principles that are important.”
They both believed they’d won.
On Tuesday, June 12, voters will go to the polls. After months of arguing similar points, thinking about gender and trying not to think about it, Dan and Abigail will find out who was right.