The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How moderates like Rep. Abigail Spanberger survive in tribalistic times

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) at a rally in Richmond on Saturday. (Steve Helber/AP)

Former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger first ran for Congress in 2018 and won in a district President Trump carried by seven points. She was among the flock of moderate Democrats who defeated a Republican incumbent and helped flip the House. I spoke to her on Monday about finding common ground in polarized times.

Part of what makes her effective, she says, is that she doesn’t speak to Republicans with the intent to convince them that they are wrong. “Not everyone has to agree,” she said. Instead, she searches for something on which they have common ground, even if they disagree entirely on policy. She recounted that she once approached a Republican volunteer handing out sample ballots. “I started the conversation because he is involved,” she said, not because they agree on anything. Political involvement itself can be common ground.

Spanberger said she can go days without talking about Trump, despite a political climate that often seems as if everything revolves around whether you are in the Resistance or wearing a MAGA hat. People are “hyper-focused” now on containing covid-19, on restoring the economy and on Internet broadband in rural areas. She talks about keeping health care in place. She doesn’t say we are in this mess because Trump failed to address covid-19; instead, she focuses on what she has done in Congress and what she wants to do going forward.

She also has a record to run on: “I promised to do a town hall in every county in my first year,” she said, adding that she wound up exceeding that mark by 12 town halls. She ticked off other promises she kept, including voting for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that replaced NAFTA. She also promised not to vote for Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as House speaker, which she stuck to as well.

What does not come up with voters, and hardly seems to matter, is impeachment (which Spanberger supported once the Ukraine scandal broke — not before, as more progressive Democrats did). “That was a lost job ago, an illness ago, a lost family member ago,” she said. Covid-19 and the economy have obliterated that issue and come to dominate people’s lives.

Spanberger is considered a rising star in the party, in no small part because of her national security background. She has also benefited from Pelosi’s effort to elevate freshmen Democrats — especially women — to subcommittee chairs, something that did not occur in the so-called Year of the Woman in 1992. (Spanberger is the chair of the House Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee and sits on the Agriculture and Foreign Affairs committees.)

I asked her whether she would have had a tougher time with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the top of the ticket. She tactfully sidestepped the “what if” question: “It’s impossible to imagine,” she said. “Biden clearly came out [on policy] where people wanted. He is the nominee. He is the one who stuck it out. He is the one who built the coalition.” And that, of course, means she is not defending a socialist at the top of the ticket but instead talking bread-and-butter issues.

In case anyone thinks her district has not changed over time, she recounted getting together on Monday with Josephine Fleming, a 102-year-old African American woman born in her district two years before women got the right to vote. Fleming didn’t vote until the 1950s because of the poll tax, but cast her first presidential vote for Adlai Stevenson. Now, she gets to cast her vote for a woman who, unthinkable in Fleming’s childhood, worked undercover for the CIA and then served in Congress. She’s a reminder that great change is possible — but it often takes a long time.

Spanberger is favored to win reelection — and to challenge the perception that moderation in politics is dead.

Read more:

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Jennifer Rubin: Seven big things Biden got right

Alexandra Petri: I just time-traveled from the future to make sure your vote gets counted

Max Boot: The work of the Never Trumpers is just beginning

Amanda Ripley: We’ve created cartoonish narratives about people in the opposite party. They’re not true.