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Suburban women, Trump fatigue and the House races that could make the difference

Elaine Luria, right, is greeted by Navy veteran Missy Cotter Smasal before a fundraiser in Virginia Beach on Sept. 22. Luria is the Democratic challenger in the 2nd Congressional District race against Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.), who is seeking a second term. “I'm so excited to see a fellow vet running,” Smasal said of Luria. (Vicki Cronis-Nohe/for The Washington Post)

If Republicans are going to prevent a blue wave from washing over the country on Nov. 6, the evening’s first sign of a stop could come in Virginia, where people such as Larnie Allgood are eager to send a message in support of their president.

Allgood, a retired telecom worker, is voting to reelect his congressman, Dave Brat, because, he said, “he and Donald Trump don’t fit in that swamp in D.C. I don’t pay much attention to what Trump says, but I watch what he does with the tax cuts and the jobs coming back in.”

If Democrats are going to wrest away the House and gain a foothold on power in the Trump era, an early Election Night indicator will come shortly after the polls close at 7 p.m. in Virginia, one of the battleground states with the most close races in the Eastern time zone.

To flip at least a couple of Virginia’s four vulnerable Republican seats, Democrats need people such as Mei Wu to break with their past and express their frustration with an antagonizing president.

With Democrats eyeing the 2018 elections as a chance for a blue wave, here's how they're fighting to win the 24 seats they need to take control of the House. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

“We have remained silent for too long — no more,” said Wu, an electrical project manager in suburban Richmond who just joined a newly organized group of Asian Americans, most of them immigrants, in support of Brat’s Democratic challenger, Abigail Spanberger. “We Chinese Americans are naturally conservative; my son thinks I should be hardcore Republican. But the president tells so many lies and attacks immigrants so much, he’s pushed a lot of us to the Democratic side.”

How women have changed politics in 2018

From a distance, next month’s midterm election in a deeply divided nation presents a binary choice between red and blue. But control of the House will be determined especially in purple places such as Virginia, where newcomers from other states and countries have boosted the economy and created surprising chances for Democrats.

Nationwide, Democrats need to flip 23 seats to take over the House. In Virginia, where Republicans hold a 7-4 advantage over Democrats in House seats, there are four real races, three in districts that Trump won handily two years ago and that Republicans have considered safe in recent cycles.

The close races are taking place not only in the affluent suburbs of Washington, but also in central Virginia around Richmond, the seaside communities around Virginia Beach and in a massive district that includes some of the D.C. exurbs, Charlottesville and a rural swath reaching all the way to the North Carolina border.

With suburban women trending nationwide against Trump, the Democrats have chosen women to run in all four of the tight races. Three are running for office for the first time. Two are veteran national security professionals — Spanberger and Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander who is challenging Rep. Scott Taylor in the 2nd, which includes Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore.

These women won their primaries. Can they win in November?

The challengers are running close to or even ahead of the Republicans, according to recent surveys.

And the money is pouring in.

In the three most competitive districts — Brat’s, Taylor’s and Rep. Barbara Comstock’s in the Washington suburbs of the 10th District — political action committees independent of the campaigns have spent $9.2 million through September, more than four times the previous record, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

In Virginia’s 7th District, Brat, a mild-mannered economics professor who stunned his own party by ousting then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the 2014 Republican primary, now finds himself in a tight battle against Spanberger, a former undercover CIA agent and suburban mother.

In a district that stretches from Richmond’s increasingly blue suburbs through rural farmland and up to the outer reaches of the D.C. metro area, Spanberger knows she can’t oust a Republican incumbent unless she wins both those who tell her that “I need to vote for you because the news is too much,” and those who start their conversations with “I’m a Republican, but.”

The 7th is one of Virginia’s strangely elongated districts, fat fingers drawn by Republican legislators to encompass suburban and rural terrain that was expected to assure reelection for GOP congressmen.

But that recipe is not working as well as it used to, as voters in the 7th’s two large suburban Richmond counties — Henrico and Chesterfield — shift toward the Democrats. Last year, Democrat Ralph Northam won the governor’s race by flipping suburban counties in some of the districts up for grabs next month.

“The polling shows this really severe split between rural and suburban voters, especially women, and as a Republican like Brat, you can do everything right in a very tough environment like this and it could still go the other way,” said Tucker Martin, a longtime adviser to Virginia Republican candidates. “If you’re disaffected by what’s going on in Washington, Spanberger is telling people she can be that safe place for you.”

“Our vote is there in all of those Virginia districts,” said Republican pollster John McLaughlin. “They didn’t move away. The problem is, you’re seeing a lot of Trump voters stay home this year.”

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The Democratic women in the four close races speak to each other regularly and are “offering variations on similar messages,” Spanberger said, “taking districts that were not even in the realm of possible and turning them into ones we can win.”

Those variations are most apparent in how the Democrats talk about their opposition to Trump. Two challengers are the more avowedly liberal of the bunch and present themselves as part of the anti-Trump resistance movement: In the 5th District, a slice of Virginia larger than New Jersey that stretches from the D.C. exurbs to the North Carolina border, Leslie Cockburn, a veteran journalist, is running for an open seat against Republican Denver Riggleman, and in the 10th, which extends from inside the Capital Beltway out to the Shenandoah Valley, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton is challenging Comstock.

In swingy Virginia, can Comstock out-hustle a blue wave?

Luria and Spanberger, in contrast, shade toward the center, positioning themselves as pragmatists who will sometimes stand tall against the president, even as they reach out to disaffected Republicans and independents by emphasizing that they will work with Trump when that makes sense.

Brat seeks to paint Spanberger as a chameleon who tells different audiences what they want to hear. But he, too, is cautious about how he speaks about the president, endorsing the Trump tax cuts, yet also reminding voters of his tea-party roots by continuing to rail against deficit spending. “If you put James Madison together with Adam Smith, you’d have my position on anything,” he said in a brief interview. “Good luck figuring out what my opponent stands for.”

Spanberger purposely avoids direct comment on Trump. “I don’t mention him,” she said. “I’m not running against him. I don’t want to re-litigate 2016. What good does it do for me to vilify him if I’m going to need him to sign my bills?”

In suburban districts, Republicans are similarly guarded over how to handle the Trump factor. In ads that make no mention of her party affiliation, Comstock markets herself as “our independent voice.” Taylor also avoids the party label; his ads call him “an independent leader who works for us.” On his website, Brat, like Comstock, steers clear of Trump references.

Still, in Brat’s district and around the state, many Virginians say they feel compelled to use this year’s vote to make a statement about Trump.

“All votes today are about him because he’s so polarizing,” said Bill Wood, a 72-year-old Republican and Marine veteran who runs a construction business in Henrico and attended a Brat town hall on veterans’ affairs.

“I can’t say I know where Brat stands because all his ads are negative about Spanberger,” Wood said. “I wish that wasn’t the case because she comes across as someone who you can trust, even though I’m a Republican. I could see voting for her — until that Kavanaugh hearing,” the Senate confirmation debate over Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, which Wood viewed as a Democratic assault on Trump’s nominee. Wood is leaning toward Brat.

Twenty minutes from Brat’s town hall, Oz Parvaiz, a finance executive, has invited friends and neighbors to his house to meet Spanberger in the first campaign event he’s ever hosted. A Pakistani immigrant, Parvaiz said he and his wife “felt a deep sense of isolation when Trump won. The day after the election, my son asked me if we had to go back to Pakistan. I told him, ‘You were born here. Nobody gets to tell you how American you are.’ ” He started asking his friend Spanberger to run for Congress.

“You see a lot of people getting off the sidelines, and especially new Americans, and especially in suburban areas like Henrico,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is doggedly campaigning for Spanberger and the other Democrats — a luxury he can allow himself because he is running well ahead of his Republican challenger, Corey Stewart, who bills himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump.”

Suburbs such as Henrico and Chesterfield have become friendly turf to candidates such as Spanberger, who, like the other Virginia Democrats, touts her professional résumé and her role as a mother (in her case, as a Girl Scouts leader, too).

But these Virginia districts also contain extensive rural areas, where things get tough quickly for Democrats, especially on issues such as gun control.

Spanberger tries to split the question. “As a parent, I have been emotional on this issue,” she said. “So as a person, I fully support a federal ban on assault weapons. As a legislator, it is a hot-button issue. . . . We can achieve incremental change. There are a lot of things we can do while we’re arguing about assault weapons that will save many lives in this country.”

Strategists for both parties call a Democratic sweep unlikely, but a flip of two or three of the seats is plausible, both because anti-Trump voters are strongly motivated to vote and because the Republican field faces unusual challenges.

All four GOP candidates are steering clear of Stewart, the man atop their party’s ticket in Virginia, whose embrace of white nationalists has made him kryptonite for Republicans hoping to win over moderate voters.

With Corey Stewart atop the ticket, Virginia Republicans in turmoil

“I’m running my race, as you know,” Comstock said when asked if she endorsed Stewart.

Riggleman is a late replacement for incumbent Rep. Thomas Garrett, who announced at the end of May that he is an alcoholic and would drop his reelection bid.

Brat holds few public events in his district — especially since a town hall last year where protesters shouted him down and he complained that, “The women are in my grill no matter where I go.” He appears often on Fox News and other national conservative outlets.

And Taylor, a 39-year-old former Navy SEAL in his first term, has had a troubled campaign, fighting allegations of corruption. In August, aides to Taylor were accused of forging signatures on petitions of another candidate, Shaun Brown — his Democratic opponent in 2016 — to get her on the ballot and siphon votes from this year’s Democratic nominee, Luria.

The move backfired and a special prosecutor is investigating. While Taylor’s campaign went dark, figuring out how to deal with the scandal, Luria introduced herself to voters, and Democrats aired TV ads cautioning voters to “Remain vigilant: Congressman Scott Taylor is still at-large.”

Luria, one of the first women to serve her entire Navy career on combat ships, said she has always considered herself a Democrat. But although she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, she also backed Taylor that year because she thought he would govern as a moderate.

Now, Luria portrays Taylor as a GOP foot soldier who votes with his party 98 percent of the time. (Wexton wields the same statistic against Comstock.) Luria emphasizes her military pedigree and avoids Trump-bashing in a district that includes the world’s largest naval base.

Over several recent appearances, Luria never uttered Trump’s name. But she made clear her opposition to the president by pointing out that Taylor had backed away from promises to oppose offshore drilling — which Trump supports — and to maintain health-care coverage for preexisting conditions, which would have been left uncovered in a Trump-backed bill. Taylor said he believed the bill would have protected preexisting conditions.

Democratic strategists have encouraged Luria and the other Virginia candidates to talk about Trump’s policy failures rather than explicitly attacking the president. “What we’re telling our candidates is that that’s baked in,” said Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), a top official in the party’s congressional campaign committee. “Just going out and bashing Trump for the sake of Trump — you’ve got those voters already.”

Republicans in Virginia’s purplish suburbs are also wary of direct engagement with Trump. Comstock faces the toughest sledding of any Virginia incumbent: Trump lost her district by 10 points to Clinton, and its diverse, well-educated voters include a heavy concentration of federal workers.

Comstock has been on a savvy quest to separate herself from Trump, from his time as a candidate (she called on him to drop out after release of the “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump bragged of grabbing women by the genitals) to his threats this year to jolt Congress into action by shutting down the government.

“I think both sides have learned that a government shutdown was bad. It wasn’t good for them,” Comstock told the president on live TV.

But as much as Comstock touts “a booming economy fueled by our tax cuts,” her opponent is busy reminding voters about Comstock’s promises in this spring’s primary campaign to remain “pro-border-wall,” “pro-life” and “pro-2nd Amendment.”

“What’s happening in Comstock’s district is what happened in Henrico County and all the metropolitan areas,” said Linwood Cobb, a longtime Virginia Republican activist. “They’ve shifted to the blue. And right now, with both parties going so far to the extremes, whoever reaches back to the center is going to win. Spanberger’s ads are all about character and compromise and competence, and right now, that may be what you need to win.”