Midterm congressional elections are never kind to the political party in the White House, but three Virginia Democrats are fighting to survive a potential Republican electoral wave this week in new political districts that have heightened the challenge.
The Virginia Supreme Court, shaped during an era of Republican dominance in the General Assembly that elects its justices, approved a new congressional map on Dec. 28 that essentially locks in party majorities in eight of the state’s 11 districts while carving out three as political battlegrounds that will be bloodied this week.
“The endangered members are all Democratic women,” said Larry Sabato, president of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and a critic of a new redistricting process that relied on maps drawn by two special masters, one Democrat and one Republican.
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Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th; Elaine Luria, D-2nd; and Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, all entered Congress on a Democratic electoral wave in 2018 that represented a public backlash against then-President Donald Trump.
Now, they face stiff challenges from Republicans Yesli Vega in the 7th, Jen Kiggans in the 2nd and Hung Cao in the 10th. Republicans are determined to capitalize on the unpopularity of President Joe Biden, a Democrat who beat Trump but hasn’t been able to defeat a 40-year high in inflation as the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The stakes are enormous for both parties, but especially for Joe Biden,” said Sabato, who expects Republicans to win a sizable majority in the House of Representatives and potentially control the Senate. “This is probably going to truncate his presidency.”
“It’s gridlock for two years — vetoes, executive actions and loads of partisan rhetoric,” he predicted. “That’s what normally happens.”
Chris Saxman, a former Republican delegate and executive director of Virginia FREE, said, “The Biden agenda ends. It is dead, full stop.”
The national issues looming over the midterm elections include a potential push for a national ban on abortion, a showdown over raising the debt ceiling and potential cuts in entitlement programs, tightening control over illegal immigration at the Southern border, and continuing U.S. military aid to Ukraine to defend itself from a Russian invasion in its ninth month.
But nothing looms larger than the economy, particularly the effect of raising interest rates to slow inflation and a debate over increasing U.S. oil and gas production to lower fuel prices.
“I think [voters are] very concerned about the economy,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, seeking re-election in a newly drawn district, rooted in the Richmond suburbs, against former New Kent Treasurer Herb Jones. “It’s daily living expenses and the price of gas, and now I’m hearing a lot about diesel fuel.”
In Virginia, Democratic candidates face additional challenges from a redistricting process that, for the first time, took the decision on new congressional and legislative maps away from the legislature, which Democrats controlled in 2021. Instead, a constitutional amendment gave the power to a new independent commission that was unable to agree on anything, leaving the final outcome to the Supreme Court.
Spanberger is locked in a toss-up race for re-election against Vega, a first-term member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, in a district that moved from the Richmond suburbs, where the incumbent Democrat lives, to Northern Virginia and the Fredericksburg area.
The congresswoman had twice won in a Republican-leaning district when Trump was in office, but her race against Vega has become perhaps the most competitive, as well as the most expensive, in the state, with more than $20 million in spending by outside groups, primarily national party organizations, and $25 million in political advertising, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
“They have to have that seat to keep the majority,” Saxman said of Democrats.
In comparison, national groups have made about $11.5 million in independent expenditures in the new Republican-leaning 2nd District, where Luria faces a tough challenge from Kiggans, a state senator from Virginia Beach, and less than $200,000 in the Democratic-leaning 10th District, where Wexton is running against Cao, a retired U.S. Navy captain.
The dwindling outside spending tells the tale in both districts, Saxman said. In the 2nd, “the cake is baked and everybody knows it,” he said. In the 10th, “this is going to be one where if [Cao] gets it, it’s completely on his own.”
Sabato agrees that Republicans aren’t worried about losing the 2nd, but he said, “They know they need to win seats like the 7th to get a decent-sized majority.”
Wittman, a 15-year incumbent who lives on the Northern Neck, is running for re-election in a district that now encompasses parts of Henrico (where he grew up), Chesterfield and Hanover counties. Jones, his Democratic opponent from New Kent, would have to overcome a fundraising disadvantage and a heavy Republican lean in the new district.
Similarly, Rep. Don McEachin, D-4th, is running in a rematch against Leon Benjamin, a South Richmond pastor whom he defeated by more than 91,000 votes in 2020, in a heavily Democratic district.
Rep. Bob Good, R-5th, is seeking a second term against Democratic newcomer Josh Throneburg in a heavily Republican district that includes Goochland, Powhatan and Louisa counties, and a slice of western Hanover.
Wittman is looking ahead to the next Congress with a possible Republican majority in the House. Personally, he would seek an elevated role on the Armed Services Committee, a crucial panel because of Virginia’s reliance on defense spending.
“I would like to be made the vice chairman if we are honored to take over the majority,” he said in an interview on Friday.
Wittman said he also would seek to become chairman of the panel’s Tactical Air & Land Forces Subcommittee, trading in his term-limited role as ranking member on the Seapower & Projection Forces Subcommittee.
Another Virginia congressman, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-11th, wants to become chairman of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, the same panel that investigated alleged sexual harassment in the NFL organization now known as the Washington Commanders.
Connolly, who is running against Republican Jim Myles, a retired federal employee, in a heavily Democratic Fairfax district, wants to continue that probe, as well as protect the large number of federal workers and government contractors who live in his district, and reform the U.S. Postal Service.
If Republicans win the House majority, the leading candidate to chair the committee is Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., who has promised to investigate, among other things, the former role of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who led the effort to control COVID-19 as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“You’re going to have a lot of oversight hearings because Republicans said they would,” Saxman said.
Wittman played down the oversight issue. “We do have an obligation to do oversight,” he said, “but let’s not get ahead of the facts.”
Republicans are running on the “Commitment to America” agenda unveiled last month by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is likely to become House speaker if they gain control.
“Job one is getting the economy back on track,” said Wittman, who considers U.S. energy independence a critical part of that commitment.
Democrats point to McCarthy’s willingness to use the next debate over raising the debt ceiling as leverage to cut federal spending, potentially including entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. He never said those programs would face cuts and the platform promises to “save and strengthen” them, but some members of the House Republican Caucus have talked about entitlement cuts.
Vega, Spanberger’s opponent in the 7th, said during the campaign that she would vote to shut down the government to block funding of the Biden administration’s initiatives such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes a cap on out-of-pocket prescription drug expenses for people on Medicare.
Biden appeared with Spanberger in Culpeper County this year to promote legislation to lower prescription drug prices.
“The bottom line is there is an effort to cut benefits to American seniors,” Spanberger said in a recent joint news conference with Luria and Wexton.
Connolly, who appeared with Spanberger and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., at a campaign event on Friday, said he currently represents most of Prince William, where talk of a government shutdown is anathema to federal workers and contractors.
“Those are fighting words,” he said. “They are incendiary.”
Wittman said Congress needs to talk about how to sustain Social Security and Medicare benefits over the long term, as well as reduce the $31 trillion national debt.
But, he said, “There doesn’t need to be a government shutdown.”
The Commitment to America doesn’t mention “election integrity,” an issue that has been embedded in many Republican campaigns because of Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was stolen from him and subsequent efforts in presidential battleground states by his allies to control the electoral process.
Trump recently endorsed Vega in her 7th District race. She played it down and Spanberger played it up, seeking to link the Republican to “insurrectionists” involved in the mob that assaulted the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an unsuccessful attempt to block certification of Biden’s victory.
Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican who serves on the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack, endorsed Spanberger on Saturday.
For Sabato, the biggest issue in the election is “democracy” itself. “We’re in deep trouble,” he said.
But he acknowledges that’s not the biggest issue for most midterm voters.
“The price of bacon, that’s what people care about,” Sabato said. “Gas, bread, eggs, milk and bacon.”