Gov. Glenn Youngkin suggested a political motive for a letter he received from Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, urging him to fix flaws documented by an audit critical of the state’s response to a January snowstorm that left thousands of people stranded overnight on a busy section of Interstate 95.
The traffic gridlock — which occurred before Youngkin took office — stretched both directions on a 52-mile stretch from Caroline County through the Fredericksburg area to eastern Prince William County. It came in the heart of a newly drawn 7th Congressional District that features one of the most nationally watched races in the midterm elections in November.
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Spanberger, who currently lives in western Henrico County, outside of the new district, is one of three Democratic congresswomen — along with Rep. Elaine Luria, D-2nd, and Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th — whom Republicans hope to unseat in their bid to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and block President Joe Biden’s agenda.
“I know that Spanberger’s in a tough race and therefore she’s tried to do things to demonstrate, maybe, a connection to her new district,” Youngkin said on Tuesday after an unrelated event in Richmond.
If so, some say it would be smart politics for Spanberger, who is happy to campaign on a string of legislative victories in Congress, including passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure funding package that Biden signed last year. Among other things, the bill aims to relieve traffic congestion with new roads and expanded mass transit service.
“The new 7th District is so intertwined as an I-95 district that talking about infrastructure is a good thing,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, in the heart of the district in Fredericksburg.
The day after the interstate reopened, Spanberger demanded a full investigation by then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a fellow Democrat. She said she expects his Republican successor to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“It’s unfortunate that he assumed a political motive,” she said of Youngkin’s response.
Spanberger’s opponent, Prince William Supervisor Yesli Vega, has been silent on how to relieve congestion on I-95, focusing instead on a national Republican agenda of tax cuts, law enforcement and parent empowerment over their children’s education. She opposed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“Once small-government conservatives talk about cutting taxes, I’m not sure they have a whole lot to say about funding initiatives for government,” Farnsworth said.
The new congressional districts, which the Virginia Supreme Court approved on Dec. 28 after an independent redistricting commission failed to agree on new maps, add local uncertainty to federal elections for swing seats that initially had Democrats on the defensive but now feeling increasingly competitive.
Spanberger chose to run in the new 7th instead of challenging Rep. Rob Wittman in a newly configured 1st District that now includes much of the Richmond suburbs that had anchored the old district.
Luria, seeking a third term in a Hampton Roads district that no longer includes Norfolk and now leans Republican, is trying to hold off a well-financed challenge by state Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.
Kiggans will get help from the Congressional Leadership Fund’s promise of up to $3.2 million in outside expenditures targeting the incumbent Democrat.
Farnsworth considers Luria the most vulnerable of Virginia’s congressional incumbents — seven Democrats and four Republicans.
“Things look good for us,” Kiggans said in an interview. “The wind is at our backs some.”
Wexton, first elected with Spanberger and Luria in 2018 in a Democratic wave against then-President Donald Trump, is defending her Northern Virginia seat against political newcomer Hung Cao, a Vietnamese immigrant and retired U.S. Navy captain. The redrawn district, based in Loudoun and Prince William counties, leans to Democrats.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has reserved $4 million to target Democrats in races in the Washington area, including Spanberger and Wexton, who have much bigger campaign war chests than their opponents.
But Trump is making it harder for Republicans to avoid issues they don’t want to talk about, such as a wave of party nominees who still deny the results of the 2020 presidential election that Biden won, or the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when some of his supporters violently tried to stop Congress from certifying the electoral results. Luria, a member of the House Jan. 6 committee, has run an ad portraying her as a defender of democracy.
Biden kept the focus on the former president in a speech on Thursday night asserting that Trump poses a threat to democratic elections.
“I think the president summed it up well last night — democracy is on the line,” said Rep. Don McEachin, D-4th, who has refused to debate or appear publicly with Leon Benjamin, his Republican challenger, until Benjamin concedes that the Democratic congressman and the president won their elections in 2020.
The emphasis on Trump, especially after the FBI raided the former president’s Florida home to retrieve classified government documents, also plays to Democrats’ advantage in the midterm elections, Farnsworth said.
“The norm for a midterm election is that it is shaped by a generally more negative assessment of the incumbent president,” he said. “The people most unhappy with the president generally are the most likely to turn out.”
“What’s different about 2022 is the conversation is not about just one president — it’s about two,” Farnsworth said.
Republicans are counting on voter concerns about inflation, crime and education, with Biden in the White House and Democrats narrowly controlling both chambers of Congress.
“Inflation and the cost of living is skyrocketing, our communities are less safe, and our schools are failing our children,” Vega said in a statement on Friday.
“Virginians don’t want politicians like Biden and Spanberger making their lives harder. They want affordable gas and groceries, safe communities, and schools that listen to parents and their children.”
Kiggans, who is taking on Luria, predicted: “They’re going to vote with their pocketbooks. This is going to be a referendum on Joe Biden’s policies.”
Those issues might have lost some of their punch as inflation flattened in July, gasoline prices dropped and Biden scored a series of legislative victories.
This summer, Congress passed legislation to protect military veterans exposed to toxic chemicals, revive the manufacturing of semiconductor chips in the U.S., lower the price of insulin and other prescription drugs for seniors in Medicare, extend federal subsidies for health insurance premiums and take steps to reduce pollution linked to climate change.
“Those are policies I’m proud of,” Spanberger said in an interview on Thursday in which she emphasized her work in Congress.
Biden had a job approval rating in Virginia of 41% in a Roanoke College poll released Aug. 30, a slight uptick from his 38% level in May. His August unfavorable rating was 55%, just one point lower than his 56% disapproval rating in May.
The poll found that 72% of respondents said the country is on the wrong track, down slightly from the survey’s 77% mark in May.
Trump remains less popular in Virginia than Biden, but his favorability rating also increased slightly, to 37% in the August poll, up from 34% in May. Trump’s unfavorable rating was 58% in August, a point lower than his 59% rating in May.
Spanberger already has gone on the attack against Vega’s support for restrictions on abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned longstanding protections for the procedure under Roe v. Wade. She has ridiculed the challenger’s suggestion that rape victims may be less likely to be impregnated.
Spanberger pounced on Vega’s affirmative response Tuesday to a question from a conservative radio host on “The John Fredericks Show” about whether she would vote to shut down the federal government to “grind Biden’s administration to a halt.”
Spanberger took office in 2019 during a government shutdown triggered by Republicans pushing for funding of Trump’s promise to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants. She filed her first bill in response and met with Trump to urge him to end the shutdown.
The new 7th District is heavily populated by federal employees and contractors, military members and retirees, but Spanberger said, “This is not a political priority because of the new district. This is my longstanding commitment to the functioning of government.”
It’s an issue, like abortion, that Farnsworth said Republicans don’t want to talk about in the campaign.
“The conversations about government shutdowns and abortion are not going to be all that helpful in a suburban swing district like this,” he said.
The Cook Political Report recently moved the 7th District race from a toss-up to leaning Democratic. It rates Luria’s race with Kiggans a toss-up and doesn’t consider Wexton’s seat likely to be competitive.
Chris Saxman, a former Republican delegate and leader of an influential Virginia business organization, acknowledged the shift in public mood in his political newsletter, “The Intersection,” on Friday.
“Democrats have had a very good summer politically,” wrote Saxman, executive director of Virginia FREE. “They have improved their standing with the base in passing progressive legislation, the Dobbs decision [overturning abortion protections under Roe v. Wade] has intensified their enthusiasm, and Democrats have managed to keep [former President] Donald Trump centered in the midterm conversation.”
“Falling gas prices certainly have taken the edge off voter antipathy as well,” he added.
Saxman said Republicans still have an advantage in enthusiasm, with polls showing more Republicans likely to vote than Democrats, and said another spike in gasoline prices before the election could swing voters in a different direction.
But, he wrote, “Lacking a compelling narrative from Republicans, the Democrats have some wind at their backs as we turn into the Labor Day weekend.”
Youngkin tried to ignite GOP enthusiasm with a political rally in Northern Virginia on Wednesday to push education policies — expanding school choice and increasing parental control over what their children are taught in school — to the political forefront.
Those issues helped propel him to victory over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe last fall. Cao immediately seized them for his race against Wexton in a district centered in Loudoun County, where a cultural war continues to rage over public school policies. Cao said at the rally that “the battlefields are our schools.”
The Virginia Supreme Court gave Youngkin a boost on Friday by allowing a special grand jury to proceed in its investigation of the Loudoun School Board’s handling of two sexual assaults a student reportedly committed at different schools.
Farnsworth questions whether the governor’s strategy will work in federal elections.
“Focusing on education helps Glenn Youngkin build a national profile and it helps local candidates,” he said, “but its impact on the congressional campaigns seems minimal.”
Youngkin didn’t directly address the midterm elections at the Northern Virginia rally, but he has promised to use his new political action committee to boost Republican candidates.
“It’s clear that Youngkin could be doing more to help Republican candidates for Congress in Virginia right now,” Farnsworth said. “Perhaps we’ll see more of that when the campaign season begins in earnest in coming weeks.”
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Staff writer Jess Nocera contributed to this report.