First-term Democratic congresswoman Abigail Spanberger declared victory early Wednesday evening over Republican challenger and state Del. Nick Freitas, after a burst of absentee-vote tallies gave her the lead.

Spanberger was trailing Freitas when in-person voting results were reported Tuesday night for the 7th Congressional District, which is anchored in the suburbs of Richmond. But she led by several thousand votes after Spotsylvania County reported its final absentee ballots and Henrico County had tallied additional absentee ballots as well.

Thousands more ballots were still uncounted in Henrico, officials said — but absentee ballots have skewed heavily Democratic, and Spanberger has strong support in that part of the district. Freitas did not concede, saying late Wednesday that out of respect for his supporters, staff and “the importance of this race,” he would wait until all votes were tallied — likely by Friday — to make a statement.

Two other Virginia Democrats who flipped red seats in 2018, Reps. Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton, have fended off Republican challengers to win a second term. In the race for an open 5th District seat, Republican Bob Good defeated Democrat Cameron Webb.

In her speech Wednesday night, Spanberger thanked Freitas for the “hard-fought campaign” and extended an olive branch to his supporters, saying, “I hope over time I will earn your trust.”

At that start of her term, “I said I would find common ground, and I said I would hold my ground when necessary,” Spanberger said. “And I have done just that. . . . I have listened to the people who elected me, as well as those who did not.”

She told stories of her constituents: grandparents driving their grandkids across Nottaway County to a library in Chesterfield every Friday to use the Internet because they lack broadband access, the Henrico father working two jobs to afford insulin.

In an interview, she said she believed her “focus on people” is what resonated most with voters. She held town halls in every jurisdiction, often fielding complaints about the lack of rural broadband access and the price of prescription drugs – two issues she focused on heavily.

Asked about her top three priorities, Spanberger said: “one, covid; two, covid; three, covid; and I don’t say that in jest. Everything we need to do depends on our ability to control this virus.”

She said she’ll be focusing not only on a relief package to aid small businesses and struggling families but also a national testing and contact tracing strategy.

Spanberger ousted Republican incumbent Dave Brat two years ago as part of a blue wave that gave Democrats the majority in Virginia’s U.S. House delegation. National GOP groups and the Club for Growth PAC poured in millions of dollars this year to try to return the district to Republican hands, while Spanberger outraised Freitas by more than a 2-to-1 ratio.

Freitas pushed a platform of limited government and free-market overhauls to health care. A former Green Beret, he also tried to capitalize on Virginia Republicans’ angst over the state’s new gun restrictions, promising strong protection of Second Amendment rights.

Spanberger, a former CIA officer and Postal Service investigator, presented herself as a moderate focused on issues affecting rural Americans. In campaign ads, she also highlighted her background in intelligence and national security.

Spanberger won in 2018 with hefty support from voters in the western Richmond suburbs — in Chesterfield and Henrico counties — and unofficial returns showed she had strong backing there again this year.

She was among several Democrats representing historically red districts to take the political risk of voting to impeach President Trump early this year, saying it was the right thing to do.

Freitas and Republican strategists criticized her for it, while trying to paint her as more liberal than moderate, by linking her to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Amid an unprecedented health crisis, Democrats made access to health care a key issue in the race. Spanberger and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee went after Freitas for his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act and for voting in the General Assembly against the state’s Medicaid expansion, among other things.

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.