Spanberger, a former CIA officer, narrowly defeated two-term Republican Dave Brat in the 2018 blue wave, helping Democrats win control of the House. Former House majority leader Eric Cantor had represented the district for seven terms before losing the 2014 GOP nomination to Brat, a tea party favorite and member of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
“Today’s a victory,” Freitas told cheering supporters afterward. “But it’s the victory that launches another fight. . . . We need to show the contrast between what we believe . . . versus what they’re being force-fed by the left in this country right now.”
Spanberger, in a nod to the nuanced politics of her district, released a written statement ahead of the vote touting her commitment to bipartisanship.
“Our district needs someone who puts country before party, not the other way around,” she said.
Freitas emerged as the winner after three rounds of voting, having led in each round. He was one of six Republicans who competed in the nominating convention, which was originally set for April but was postponed after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) banned large gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
About 2,500 registered delegates traveled to the exhibition hall at Meadow Event Park, the site of the Virginia State Fair, for a “walk-through” convention. The crowd was substantially smaller than the 5,200 registered and the 4,000 organizers had expected. The pandemic and the 97-degree heat were likely deterrents.
While delegates entered the hall to cast ballots, they had to exit immediately afterward to observe social distancing. Some spent the time between votes in their cars, air conditioners running.
“This is democracy in action. It just happened to occur on the hottest day of the year,” James Bates, a 64-year-old private investigator from Goochland, said from behind the wheel of his idling white pickup, hood popped to help heat escape the engine and a towel tucked in one window to block the sun. “Burned a quarter tank of gas sitting right here.”
Candidates dangled free water, air-conditioned tents, paper fans — even the chance to win an AR-15 — to try to keep supporters from drifting off over the 9½ hours between the first round of voting and the last. Protect Freedom PAC, a political action committee affiliated with Freitas ally Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), announced it was raffling off the firearm with a catch: The winner had to be present for the drawing, which took place after the final vote.
The final round of balloting pitted two state delegates and military veterans against each other. Freitas faced Del. John J. McGuire III (Goochland), a former Navy SEAL.
Both had led the field in fundraising; Freitas raised more than $1 million and McGuire $670,000, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. Spanberger has raised $4.9 million.
The other contenders were Tina Ramirez, founder of an international nonprofit; Andrew Knaggs, a former Defense Department official in the Trump administration; Peter Greenwald, a retired Navy commander and high school teacher; and Jason Roberge, a Coast Guard veteran.
The district is a suburban-rural mix that runs from Culpeper through the Richmond suburbs of Chesterfield and Henrico counties, and it continues down to rural Southside Virginia. Trump won the 7th by about seven points in 2016, but the district has grown less hospitable to Republicans since then, particularly in suburban areas.
Independent agencies rate the race as a “toss-up” or “leans Democrat.” National parties and political action committees have reserved millions of dollars in airtime for campaign ads.
At the convention, the winner had to garner a majority — at least 50 percent of ballots cast, plus one. The two lowest-performing candidates were eliminated after each round of balloting.
Freitas led in the first round, with 43.53 percent of the vote. McGuire had 25.89 percent, Ramirez 22.98 percent, Knaggs 6.95 percent, Greenwald 0.56 percent and Roberge 0.08 percent.
As ballots for the second round were being tallied, Ramirez and McGuire struck a deal: The one who did not advance to the third round would endorse the other over Freitas. Ramirez started spreading the word about an hour before the results were announced. As it turned out, she was the one who had to do the endorsing.
Freitas took 46.7 percent in the second round, and McGuire edged Ramirez out, 25.1 percent to 24.5 percent. Knaggs took 3.7 percent.
As delegates lined up for the third ballot, McGuire volunteers handed out glossy fliers with Ramirez’s photo. “BREAKING: Tina Ramirez endorses John McGuire for Congress,” it read. Freitas’s volunteers also worked the line, handing out bottled water.
Freitas won the last round with 56 percent of the vote.
Freitas, 40, has gained a national following for his libertarian views and incendiary floor speeches in Richmond, endearing him to Sens. Paul and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.).
A three-term state delegate from Culpeper, he enlisted in the Army after high school, rose to the Special Forces and served two combat tours in Iraq. He left the military in 2010 and works as a consultant.
Freitas sought the 2018 nomination to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D) but lost to Corey Stewart, the now-retired Prince William board chairman. Freitas’s 2019 race for a third term in the General Assembly was among the most closely watched in the state because he failed to file key documents to register for the ballot, forcing him to launch a costly write-in campaign.
That effort was bankrolled by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein of Illinois, who donated $500,000 and helped Freitas win by double digits.
He missed the deadline again this year, but state elections officials granted an extension to him and seven other delinquent congressional candidates.
Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.