But her first year as a member of Congress has also been filled with challenges and difficult decisions, not the least of which looms this week as the House is set to vote on impeachment of President Trump.
That historic and divisive vote could determine Spanberger’s prospects for reelection in a district that was carried by Trump by six points and where eight Republicans have already lined up for the chance to run against her next year. An additional eight Republican state lawmakers whose districts overlap with Spanberger’s won reelection last month, and national GOP groups are targeting her race — potentially troubling signs for her.
Republicans say Spanberger’s support for an impeachment inquiry against Trump proves she is not the independent she promised to be. She has yet to publicly say how she will vote on articles of impeachment on the House floor.
Spanberger likes to trumpet her vote against Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for speaker, her membership in the bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus and a list of times she has voted against party leadership.
Spanberger rejects the idea that leadership gives the most vulnerable Democrats — “front-liners” — leeway to vote as they see fit to help their reelection chances. But she said she has never feared reprisal for voting against her party.
“Maybe this is the way Congress used to function,” she said. “I have yet to witness it. I have not personally been threatened, nor have I heard of anyone else having that experience.”
Among the occasions when she voted against the leadership was her opposition to an amendment to a defense-spending bill because it would have prohibited the sharing of intelligence data intended to avoid civilian casualties in the Saudi-led coalition’s military operations against Houthi rebels.
She voted against the budget because she said it didn’t acknowledge the challenge of the nation’s growing deficit.
And she voted yes on a measure that required U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be notified when an undocumented immigrant seeks to purchase a firearm.
“If the text of what we’re putting forth is good, I’m going to vote for it,” she said. “I’ve voted, quote, ‘with the Republicans’ many, many times.”
Still, the website FiveThirtyEight, which tracks the voting records of members of Congress, found that Spanberger has voted with Trump just 1.8 percent of the time.
Some Republicans have become friends, Spanberger said. She pointed to Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), with whom she bonded as a fellow University of Virginia graduate. She co-sponsored his bill to put deficit clocks in rooms where the House Budget and Appropriations committees meet.
“I don’t want to suggest that we’ve got some elixir we’re about to launch that’s going to bring everyone together,” Roy said. “We’ve got Democrats going down this impeachment road and that continues to suck the oxygen out of the room . . . Abigail and I have talked about things that should not be partisan.”
Spanberger shared a moment on the House floor with Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) after unanimous passage of their bill to shine a light on discounts negotiated between insurance companies and drug manufacturers.
After the vote, Arrington removed his flag pin and handed it to Spanberger’s daughter Charlotte, 8.
“This is to remember when your mom passed her first bill,” he said, according to Spanberger. Her eyes filled with tears as she recounted the story. “That’s cool, right?”
A spokesman for Arrington confirmed her version of events.
She and her husband, Adam, and three daughters sprawled out on the carpet in their Henrico County home on a recent Saturday to play the board game Sorry. The extended family loves games, too; her brother-in-law had trophies made for their annual tournament following Thanksgiving dinner.
“If only we ran elections based on games,” Spanberger said.
“Then you would lose,” her eldest, Claire, 11, said to her mom. The blondes stared each other down. “You probably still beat Dave Brat,” Claire added with a smirk, referencing Spanberger’s Republican opponent.
“Stop,” Spanberger said, equally amused.
When they have no school, the girls often join Spanberger on the Hill and have gotten to know her closest friends.
Catherine considered dressing as Pelosi for Halloween. Charlotte was going to be Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), who with Spanberger is one of the five “badasses,” freshmen women who won red districts and have served in the military or intelligence agencies. Claire chose Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.).
They went with witch, zombie and Maleficent instead.
Charlotte practiced baton twirling as Spanberger made Catherine chocolate milk in a “Virginia is for Lovers” mug. Spanberger displayed her favorite mug on the sly. It read “Tears of my Enemies.”
Because of her reputation as a former CIA officer, Spanberger is often described as hard-charging, which she can be. But the congresswoman teared up twice during an hour-long interview when talking about high points of the first year.
A low moment came during a June vote for $4.6 billion in emergency aid for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border that liberals said did little to rein in the Trump administration's immigration policies. The nastiness played out on social media.
“That is my worst day here, I think, because it was just a sad day,” she said. “Politics came into it in a way that I didn’t anticipate. And colleagues doubted the intention of other colleagues. That was definitely my hardest day.”
Hard days on the Hill, however, can’t compare to the challenge of her reelection campaign.
Her Republican competition got a boost in recent weeks when Dels. Nicholas J. Freitas (Culpeper) and John J. McGuire III (Henrico), veterans and proven vote-getters whose House of Delegates districts overlap the congressional district, announced their campaigns.
Republicans will choose a nominee in a convention next summer.
David Wasserman, an expert on the House at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said their entry into the race will cause him to reconsider the dynamics.
But he said the Nov. 5 Virginia legislative election — when Democrats took control of the House and Senate for the first time in a generation — could suggest continued momentum for Democrats.
The Trump presidency lit a fire under Democrats, especially in suburban Chesterfield in Spanberger’s district, a trend that has not slowed.
“Impeachment does put Spanberger in a very difficult position, considering Trump won the district,” Wasserman said. “The reality is impeachment is likely to be a distant memory next fall, at the rate the president produces new controversies.”
At her first town hall since coming out in favor of an impeachment inquiry, Spanberger stood in the auditorium of the suburban Richmond high school from which she graduated and faced some of her most stalwart opponents.
Early on, a man from Henrico told her he appreciated her work related to prescription drugs but wondered how she could support an inquiry with so little substance. “Congress can do a better job if they do the work for the American people,” he told her as a few in the crowd clapped.
“As a former CIA officer, as a former law enforcement officer, I am driven by facts and information and pursuit of those facts and information,” Spanberger said calmly. The line got applause as someone yelled, “Joe Biden!”
She continued. “The challenge here is that there are allegations that the president of the United States abused his power as president —”
Someone interrupted, yelling out, “Hearsay allegations!”
Spanberger, who likes to joke that her blood pressure goes down as situations intensify, began to talk about the notion that Trump would withhold security dollars to force Ukraine to investigate a political rival to help Trump’s election chances, before she was interrupted again. “That’s what Biden did! Biden!” a woman yelled.
“I believe these allegations are significant and dire and represent troubling, troubling allegations against the president of the United States,” Spanberger said, speaking over interruptions. The majority of the crowd clapped loudly when she was finished.
She took several questions on health care and climate change before a man in the front row holding a Trump: Make America Great Again campaign sign stood up to speak.
Timothy Forester, 55, of Chesterfield, told her she was on the wrong side of history and asked how she could justify her support for gun control. “I’d like to know how you support the Constitution and deprive citizens of our unalienable rights,” he said.
She argued that laws and regulations already settled as constitutional should be applied consistently. As she spoke, he continued to display the sign where she could see it.
After the event, Forester, a retired sheriff’s deputy, called the impeachment inquiry indefensible.
“I don’t have to be respectful. I was not being disrespectful, but I’ll be heard,” he said. As he spoke, four other Trump supporters gathered around him.
“I got a picture of you with the Trump sign and Spanberger. That’s going to all my family,” one man said.
“She needs to go,” a woman added.
“Count me in,” Forester said.
As political foes gear up to try to unseat her, Spanberger says she’s focused on the work.
One recent morning, she attended a breakfast where lawmakers from both parties and both chambers discussed prescription drug legislation.
At lunch, groups of moderate Democrats and Republicans waded through stacks of paper. She snapped photos of bills she considered supporting, sent them to her staff and took notes on her phone.
“In that isolated afternoon, it was like, this is Congress pushing, pushing, pushing. But then in the greater landscape, it is a very interesting time,” she said.
She took office during the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history, a former federal employee herself representing a district with many who work for the government, and will close out the year with a vote on impeachment.
“This hasn’t been a usual year,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the method Republicans will use to choose a nominee to face Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) next year. They will have a convention.
This story is one in a series of reports about Spanberger’s first year in office.