Two Virginia Democrats Fight for Their Political Lives

lmost as soon as Joe Biden won the White House in 2020, House Republicans’ campaign arm started collecting data and birddogging the state-by-state redistricting processes that would reset the map for the midterms, the first full test of the new President’s coattails. The message was clear: cede no corner of the country to Democratic incumbents, double-check the math about each district, and assume money will be there to fund a coast-to-coast effort to force Nancy Pelosi once again from the Speaker’s Office. Despite Biden winning the biggest prize in 2020 election, the House Republicans won 15 of the 12 seats that were sought by incumbent Democrats.

By the time most of the new maps were put in place in recent weeks, Rep. Tom Emmer’s team at the National Republican Congressional Committee had identified 75 incumbent Democrats whose re-election bids would be aggressively contested, the biggest battleground considered by the party in years. Fully 59 of those are areas that were Biden territory as recent as two years back. The message to party staffers, donors, and insiders alike was clear: don’t assume that Biden can shield his nominal allies. Already the NRCC has saved more than $100M in TV ads, and it is still humming. Republicans must win six House seats in order to secure their one-vote majority due to current House vacancies. This assumes the GOP leader in the next Congress is able to keep the caucus together.

The reality lays bare just how much of a drag Biden and national Democrats’ all-but–mothballed agenda could be on the party’s hopes of defending their incredibly narrow majority against abysmal poll numbers, not to mention the history that a president’s party typically faces losses in its first at-bat with voters. Biden’s approval numbers are the worst of any president since World War II at this point in his presidency; in recent days, Biden has narrowly slipped below even Donald Trump’s numbers.

This is all good news for Republican optimism. First, however, they must choose their nominees. These choices are crucial in areas where incumbents with experience will be fighting for their lives.

Just look at Tuesday’s primaries in Virginia, where Republicans are selecting nominees in two competitive districts that are practically in D.C.’s backyard. The GOP’s path back to a House majority has many, many forks, but most strategists regard those two Virginia seats as potentially critical stops.

Elaine Luria, a two-term representative, holds it currently. It includes Norfolk and Hampton as well as all of Virginia Beach. The advantage is about three points for Republicans. Mathematically, it’s about as middle-of-the-pack as they come, with the Cook Political Report noting in its analysis that as many districts are more friendly to Republicans as are friendly to Democrats.

Jen Kiggans is a former Navy helicopter pilot who also works as a nurse practitioner in the state. She’s widely considered the favourite to win the GOP nomination from a district that has a heavy military presence. Washington Republicans see Kiggans, a qualified challenger to Luria (a former Navy Commander), but other veterans are also running. One of them, Navy veteran Jarome Bell, has embraced Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen and has called for the execution of those who commit election fraud. (Bell has been banned from Twitter and some of his posts on Facebook have been removed, including one that claimed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was about LGBT rights.)

Two other Republicans, Navy veteran and former prosecutor Andy Baan and Air Force veteran and ordained minister-slash-tattoo shop owner Tommy Altman are also running.

Trump carried the district in 2016 with 48% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 45%. Biden took the district in 2016 with 51% of votes.

New maps however shifted the district slightly in the right. Biden was able to win the old district by just 4.9 percentage points. If the same voters were present, however, Biden would still have the advantage of a smaller margin by only 3.1 percentage point today. In other words, the new maps—plus Republicans’ built-in advantages for generic candidates—may make the race incredibly messy.

Two-term Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a northward facing candidate for the presidency, is also being watched closely by the GOP. Spanberger was a former CIA worker. Her time at the spy agency remains classified, so the details of her experience can’t be shared. In 2018, she ended Republicans’ three-decade hold on the seat, based in the Richmond suburbs,and has since been very open about her frustrations with the national party. During one call in the wake of the 2020 elections that watched Biden win but Democrats’ House majority shrink, Spanberger was blunt to her colleagues: “We have to commit to not saying the words ‘defund the police’ ever again,” she reportedly said. “We have to not use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again.”

Republicans see the race as a real unknown. Washington Republicans are seeing three potential candidates at the top, all with military connections. Yesli Vega of Prince William County is an Army wife and a hostage negotiation officer. She was the first Latina woman to win her county, which is blue-leaning. Glenn Youngkin was able to win an unexpected victory last year by her assistance in connecting with Latino voters. Both the percentage of Latinos in the electorate dropped in the non-presidential years, and Youngkin took 32%. This is four points lower than the previous year. Vega has not been not shy about her conservative beliefs—and she has caught the eye of the likes of Rep. Louie Goehmert, Sen. Ted Cruz and former state AG Ken Cuccinelli. (She doesn’t actually currently live in the district.)

Derrick Anderson, a retired Green Beret and Georgetown Law graduate, will be running on his foreign-policy experience. He has served six tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as zero political experience. And state Sen. Bryce Reeves is a retired Army captain with a policy master’s degree from George Mason University. Both can be considered as viable alternatives to Vega in a redrawn district which now extends to northern Virginia’s D.C. suburbs.

Spanberger will have more breathing room with the updated map. Biden’s district was able to win by about 1.3 percent on the old turf. But the 2020 results will give Biden a victory by 6.3 percentage points in the Seventh District.

As with Luria’s district, Spanberger’s home turf voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. But also like Luria’s district, voters there last year supported Youngkin. It is a question that remains unanswered: When Virginia Democrats won victories in 2018-2020, was it due to their candidate recruiting strategy or was it more about the backlash against Trump who has no official role in politics?

It’s a question that both parties will be looking to answer this fall in those two districts, and others like it across the country.

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