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In a historically Republican stronghold, Democrat Abigail Spanberger looks to hang on

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), left, and Republican challenger Nick Freitas, a Virginia delegate. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post; Steve Helber/AP)

POWHATAN, Va. — By the end of the day, Rep. Abigail Spanberger had peeked inside a whiskey pot still and toured a garage of banged-up cars, taking notes on how the novel coronavirus has affected a pair of businesses in this small town outside Richmond.

Trump-Pence yard signs lined the two-lane road she had driven to get here, proof of the battle the first-term Democrat faces in defending her seat from Republican challenger Nick Freitas. Back in Washington, pandemic relief negotiations remained tangled in knots. And here was DRP Collision owner Kendall Ickes confronting Spanberger, wanting to know why her party was pushing the $3 trillion Heroes Act and who on earth was going to pay for it.

“Where do you see all this money coming from?” Ickes asked her. “I think this next bill may be $3 trillion?”

“Yeah, the House bill I didn’t vote for,” Spanberger responded, drawing a laugh from Ickes. She said the bill — which was dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate — was a failure in compromise as desperate businesses and families awaited more relief.

“In a crisis, that, to me, was not the appropriate path to go,” she said in an interview.

Spanberger’s vote against the Heroes Act in May is an example of what she says sets her apart from party leadership, despite repeated attempts from Freitas — a Virginia state lawmaker — to tie her to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It could become one data point for the independent and swing voters who are likely to decide the competitive race in central Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, anchored in Richmond’s western suburbs.

Freitas is trying to convince voters Spanberger is not moderate enough for the district, riding a wave of support from Trump voters angered by Spanberger’s vote for impeachment.

The race — which the Cook Political Report rates a Democratic toss-up — is drawing national attention, with the National Republican Congressional Committee and Trump Victory trying to boost Freitas through opposition messaging and “MAGA Meet-Up” events.

But it was voters in the Richmond suburbs, where Trump is unpopular, who carried Spanberger to victory in 2018. The former CIA officer and Postal Inspection Service investigator narrowly defeated incumbent Dave Brat to help her party retake the House. It was the first time in 50 years that a Democrat won the seat.

Spanberger promised to reach across the aisle on issues such as border security, broadband Internet access and lowering prescription drug prices. Her campaign this fall is emphasizing her record of doing so — which analysts say will pose a challenge to Freitas.

“This is a battle for the suburbs,” said Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. “Spanberger has to remind people why they voted for her in the first place: to take a Republican incumbent out of office.”

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The 'only no vote'

On a still Tuesday evening in late August, Freitas was introducing himself to a roomful of veterans at an American Legion hall in Midlothian, Va., tucked behind a swanky neighborhood along the James River. Roughly 20 of them showed up to his roundtable event, which Trump Victory helped put together. On the agenda: the lack of choice in Veterans Affairs medical benefits.

“I want to see some more significant reform putting veterans in control of how their medical benefits look,” Freitas, a former Green Beret, told the room.

From schools to health care to guns, more choice and more limited government has been a focal point of Freitas’s platform, which includes strict fiscal conservatism that at times goes far beyond his Republican colleagues in the Virginia Capitol. He also supports decriminalizing marijuana and revamping civil asset forfeiture, and Rozell said his libertarian streak could appeal to right-of-center anti-Trump voters “who are looking for a reason to vote Republican.”

“There have been times when I have been the only no vote on the board, and that’s intimidating,” Freitas told the veterans, speaking through a black neck gaiter he was using as a mask. “This last session, I voted no on a couple things where I had a friend of mine look over and go, ‘Aren’t you running for Congress?’ ‘Yeah, and that [bill] is garbage.’ ”

In March, Freitas was one of four Republicans to vote no on capping insulin prices; Spanberger, in contrast, has made lowering prescription drug prices a driving force of her campaign. In February, Freitas was the only person of either party in the Virginia House to vote no on requiring that small-group market insurance companies cover autism diagnosis and treatment. And in 2018, he was among the Republicans to vote no on Medicaid expansion in Virginia, saying it would “overload” a system “already stressed to the max.”

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Freitas — whose health-care record has drawn criticism from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — supports repealing the Affordable Care Act, though he has not committed to any replacement plan. He said in an interview that his positions stem from the same core belief: More government intervention in health care, especially for veterans, never fixes anything.

Freitas argued that Spanberger — who supports a public option, through the proposed Medicare X Choice Act — “wants more government intervention into our lives.”

“The Democratic Party has shifted so far to the left that to be a moderate within that apparatus doesn’t mean what it did 10 or 15 years ago,” Freitas said. “When you say that you’re a moderate, I think most people have this expectation that you’re going to do more to work across the aisle and stand up to your own party in a substantive way, and I don’t think most people have really seen that [from Spanberger].”

Some in the decidedly pro-Trump crowd at the American Legion felt similarly. David Field, a Navy veteran wearing a Trump hat, said he felt Spanberger had “betrayed” her reputation as a moderate by voting for the articles of impeachment in January.

“She voted to impeach an innocent man,” he charged.

'Phony moderate'

Rachel Bitecofer, an elections forecaster and senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, said voters like Field were never going to back Spanberger.

But more centrist voters may, which Bitecofer said is why Republicans are working overtime to undermine Spanberger’s centrist record.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, for example, called Spanberger a “phony moderate” and suggested she might support defunding the police after she marched with racial justice demonstrators in Louisa County in July. Spanberger scoffed at the jab, noting that she voted to increase funding for police training through the Justice in Policing Act in June.

Spanberger has broken with her party on a range of items, voting to allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be notified when undocumented immigrants try to purchase a firearm and opposing last summer’s House budget because it did not acknowledge the nation’s growing debt.

Even as she spoke out against the Trump administration’s use of unidentifiable federal troops in Portland, Ore., this summer, she opposed Democrats’ push to amend the Insurrection Act as a way of restricting the president’s power, saying that changing a 200-year-old, rarely used law would not actually accomplish what Democrats intended.

But she has joined the party on other marquee issues, such as gun-control laws in the wake of mass shootings, including in Virginia Beach.

Why Spanberger is all in on gun control

“It’s not incorrect to say 20 years ago it would have been out of step with moderation to vote yes on a background check bill in the 7th District,” Bitecofer said, referring to Freitas’s argument that moderates have changed. “But today, it would be way out of step with the district’s preference to vote against it.”

Spanberger, who spent much of her career with a gun on her hip, supported a bill to expand background checks and another to allow law enforcement to temporarily seize guns from people who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others, commonly known as a “red flag” law.

Freitas, who is deeply opposed to any gun-control legislation, says red-flag laws would discourage veterans from getting mental health help.

“We have a national tragedy with veterans committing suicide in this country,” Spanberger said in response to that argument. “Doing nothing certainly isn’t saving the lives of veterans.”

So far, Spanberger’s campaign ads have largely highlighted her bipartisan efforts, particularly on anti-corruption measures and national and border security. She touts a bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) to combat human trafficking and narcotics networks in Central America that are contributing to illegal immigration, which President Trump signed into law.

Rozell said Spanberger’s intelligence and law enforcement background should help to shield her from Republican messaging designed to link her with Pelosi and the far left.

But the success of either candidate, he said, may also depend on the top-of-the-ticket turnout. Trump won the district by about seven points in 2016, while Republican Mitt Romney won by 11 points in 2012.

When Spanberger topped Brat in 2018 with fewer than 7,000 votes, Rozell said, “Trump was also not on the ballot to mobilize the Trump enthusiasts.”

“We can’t forget those broader national or state-level effects in this race,” Rozell said, “especially if it’s extremely close.”

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