Prince William Supervisor Yesli Vega clinched the Republican nomination in a low-turnout, six-candidate primary Tuesday to challenge Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, setting up a general election showdown with a clear ideological contrast between the conservative firebrand and the centrist Democratic incumbent.
Vega’s nomination in a redrawn Northern Virginia district sets up what likely will be one of the nation’s most closely watched contests, a key to the battle for control of the House of Representatives.
Vega, who was born in Houston to parents who fled civil war in El Salvador, said in a statement: "As the first conservative Hispanic to win a Republican congressional primary in Virginia, this is a historic moment for Hispanics across Virginia and our nation."
She added: "We have accomplished our first milestone, now it is time to bring everyone, Republican and Democrat, together because inflation doesn’t discriminate."
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Vega dominated her rivals in Prince William, where she works as a deputy sheriff, and held off a surprising challenge by political outsider Derrick Anderson. Vega led by about 5 percentage points as the final votes were being counted. Anderson, a lawyer and former Green Beret, won his native Spotsylvania County, home of Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania.
Reeves, in his third term in the Virginia Senate, had entered the election as the apparent front-runner but finished a distant third, ahead of Stafford Board Chair Crystal Vanuch. Spotsylvania Supervisor David Ross and Prince William educator Gina Ciarcia finished fifth and sixth, respectively.
Reeves led the field of six Republican candidates in fundraising with more than $680,000 through June 1, but Vega relied on her support in Prince William, which holds the largest number of voters in the newly drawn 7th District.
She also drew on the endorsements of conservative Republicans aligned with former President Donald Trump — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who campaigned for her Monday; Rep. Bob Good, R-5th, part of the House Freedom Caucus; and former Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, who lost his seat to Spanberger in 2018.
“It’s very clear that Vega is trying to build her entire campaign on the far-right segment of the Republican Party,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.
“That makes sense for the primary ... but it creates some liabilities for the general election,” Farnsworth said on the eve of the primary.
The Virginia Supreme Court approved the new district boundaries Dec. 28, shifting its base from the Richmond suburbs of Henrico and Chesterfield counties to Northern Virginia and the Fredericksburg area. Spanberger faced no opposition for the Democratic nomination for a third term in the 7th, even though she lives in western Henrico and has not publicly committed to moving into the new district.
Spanberger said in a statement Tuesday evening:
“As the Representative for Virginia’s Seventh District, I have been proud to respond to the issues facing Virginians by working across the aisle, being accountable to the people I serve, and getting things done," citing the infrastructure law.
She added: "Amid high inflation, I am committed to lowering the cost of prescription drugs, gas, and groceries here in Virginia for our families and seniors."
The primary's outcome was a bitter defeat for Reeves, who tried to keep above the fray, but blamed his defeat on negative ads by his opponents.
“We played the game with honor,” he told disappointed supporters gathered at a restaurant in downtown Fredericksburg. They included Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, who was the Republican nominee in a narrow election loss to Spanberger in 2020.
Reeves had claimed an advantage in the boundaries of the newly drawn 7th District, which includes much of his Fredericksburg-area Senate district, including his home in Spotsylvania County. It also includes parts of Prince William County, where he worked as a police officer and detective, and Stafford County, where his insurance office is located.
“I couldn’t have worked any harder,” he said in an interview,
But Vega received about 52% of the vote in Prince William, carrying her past Anderson.
Del. Tara Durant, R-Stafford, who had supported Reeves, said Spanberger should “absolutely be concerned” about Vega winning the Republican nomination.
“Her seat is in serious jeopardy with Yesli Vega as the nominee,” Durant said.
Anderson played up his role as political outsider, but raised almost $600,000 through June 1, trailing only Reeves. He argued during the campaign that he offered the best chance to defeat Spanberger, a former CIA case agent and criminal investigator for the U.S Postal Service, because of his military experience.
Veteran Richmond political commentator Bob Holsworth said before the election that Spanberger may prefer running against Vega in a district that leans Democratic but voted last fall for Republican Glenn Youngkin as governor.
“This is probably the kind of race that Spanberger would like to run,” Holsworth said.