Rep. Abigail Spanberger had been in Congress for six days when she marched to the microphone in a meeting of fellow Democrats and informed the leadership that demonizing the border wall was not the way to keep control of the House.
“Listen, in my district I am hearing, ‘Build a wall!’ In my district we are losing the messaging that Democrats can be strong on borders,” said the 39-year-old from the Richmond suburbs, according to the congresswoman and others who were there.
It was a critical moment for Spanberger, one of dozens of new Democratic lawmakers from red districts who helped their party seize control of the House last year. These members will have to win reelection if the party is to hold the chamber in 2020.
They face a double challenge: Not only do they have to strike a balance between loyalty to the Democratic Party and fidelity to their more conservative districts, but they also have to fight the leftward tug of progressives who want universal health care, impeachment of President Trump and a Green New Deal.
Spanberger and the other moderates must find ways to separate themselves from a freshman class defined by lawmakers such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), proud members of the Democratic Socialists of America.
“It’s a tough tightrope act [Spanberger] has to perform,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Public Policy and Government at George Mason University. “She has to stay politically centered as much as possible, given the nature of her district, while at the same time work effectively with her party leadership who are pushing a more progressive agenda.”
As she fights the pull of the progressives and learns her way around Congress, Spanberger already faces a Republican opponent — Tina Ramirez, a Hispanic single mother and activist in the cause of religious freedom.
That puts Spanberger on an immediate campaign footing, just six months after she beat Rep. Dave Brat (R) in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District by emphasizing her national security background, independence and civility.
In her first weeks in office, she visited the White House with Democratic and Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus to discuss ending the government shutdown that had begun in December. She signed on to letters and legislation spearheaded by Republicans. She voted against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), whom Brat and other Republicans frequently invoked during the 2018 campaign as embodying a liberal elite.
Still, some Republican voters remain wary.
“She had portrayed herself as somewhat independent — I don’t have the impression she is exactly what she has sold herself as,” said Paul Johnson, a Brat voter who was dismayed that Spanberger voted for H.R. 1, legislation containing measures including restricting partisan gerrymandering, creating automatic voter registration, making Election Day a federal holiday and requiring super PACs to disclose donors. “She is going to have to be very, very careful about siding with Nancy Pelosi, taking some of these extreme positions, taking rights away from the states.”
On a rainy Saturday in April, Spanberger made her first visit to a NASCAR track, the Richmond Raceway, which funnels millions of dollars into the local economy and tends to draw fans who lean conservative.
“I heard you like to shoot,” the security manager, a former police officer named Chris Alberta, said to Spanberger, who spent eight years as a CIA officer.
“I do,” she said, her thumbs hooked in the front pockets of her jeans.
“So do we,” he said with a chuckle.
Later, under an elaborate tailgating tent, retired beer distributor Chris Williams offered cans of cold Miller Lite.
“Don’t be bashful now,” he said. “We have a special on those today. Buy one for the price of two, you get the second one absolutely free.”
It was 1 p.m., and Spanberger accepted a beer. He noticed.
Williams told Spanberger that he voted for Brat but appreciated that she voted against Pelosi for speaker.
“That was encouraging,” he said. “Say all you want to about Trump — he’s crazy as a loon, no question about that — but at least he’s trying to do the things he promised people he was going to do. Whether it’s right or wrong or in between, I don’t know.”
In a phone call a few weeks later, Williams said he would consider voting for Spanberger if she upheld “Virginia conservative values.”
At times, she has supported Republican-led amendments, to the chagrin of Democrats, as when she and 26 other moderate Democrats helped Republicans amend a bill to expand federal background checks for gun purchases. They added a provision that says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement must be notified when an undocumented immigrant seeks to purchase a firearm.
“It’s incumbent on all of us to give her the room she needs to do the art of the possible for her district,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said.
Loosely quoting Pelosi, he said, “We didn’t take back the House winning blue seats.”
Spanberger wants to position herself as a pragmatist, compromising to effect change gradually.
“If we are just driven by ideology, we will achieve nothing for the people who actually need it,” she said during an interview interrupted by well-wishers at a coffee shop in her district.
She pointed to Brat, the Republican she defeated, noting his membership in the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which she said repeatedly sabotaged efforts at compromise when Republicans controlled the House.
Brat’s hard-line approach, combined with his cool relations with supporters of former House majority leader Eric Cantor, whom he defeated in a nasty 2014 GOP primary, made his last term rocky. His relationships with Democrats were toxic, especially after he complained that “the women are in my grill no matter where I go” in part because he refused to hold town halls after Trump’s election. When he finally relented, he faced angry crowds.
Spanberger, on the other hand, has held five subdued town halls in her first four months.
During the campaign, she bonded with other first-time candidates with similar national security backgrounds. The nine new lawmakers with security backgrounds coordinated their choices in the office lottery so that they work near one another.
The women in the group are particularly close and text one another often. They are Democratic Reps. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), who worked at the CIA; Chrissy Houlahan (Pa.), an Air Force veteran; Elaine Luria (Va.), a retired Navy commander; and Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor. They all flipped red seats to blue and understand the delicate politics of swing districts.
“We come from places where different ideologies live side by side,” Houlahan said, “and we have a real responsibility to legislate that way. I feel like the narrative is that the Democratic Party has been hijacked by the left.”
To Spanberger, the liberal goal of transforming the complicated health-care system into a single government-financed program simply is not realistic. She cited the Affordable Care Act, still the subject of GOP ire a decade after it became law, as evidence that muscling legislation through can backfire.
Instead, she thinks small steps can make health care more affordable: Allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, insist on transparency from pharmacy benefit managers, and ease the passage of generic drugs into the market. She is one of nine co-sponsors of the House version of Medicare-X, a plan from Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine (Va) and Michael F. Bennet (Colo.) that would allow all Americans to buy into public health insurance.
Spanberger also opposes the Green New Deal, a broad set of goals to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. “What’s really challenging is it’s been presented to the American people as if it’s policy,” she said. “There are literally people who think if we were to vote on this tomorrow, we could save our planet.”
Spanberger, who leads the House agriculture subcommittee on conservation and forestry — a rare honor for a freshman and in a field she said remains a mystery to her — is studying how climate change affects farmers.
Environmental activists in her district seem unfazed by her opposition to the Green New Deal.
Lee Francis, deputy director at the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said he appreciates her opposition to offshore drilling and her desire that the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement. (Spanberger also announced that she recently had solar panels installed on her home.)
“Democracy is slow,” Francis said. “That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Spanberger had not seriously considered running for public office until a friend and former CIA colleague, Charlotte McWilliams, sent her a link to Emerge America, a program that trains female candidates.
The experts encouraged her to run for school board, but Spanberger followed her instinct to aim higher.
In a recommendation letter that McWilliams wrote to Emerge about Spanberger, she said their CIA training was “designed to be a pressure cooker” and that “Abby never lost her cool.”
Spanberger served undercover for her entire career in the CIA, where she worked on counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation. She and McWilliams each had three children in their CIA years.
At the racetrack, Spanberger climbed into a Toyota sedan at the invitation of the car company. The doors clicked shut. In an instant, her driver hit the gas. The car peeled out and turned hard around tight corners. Spanberger’s blond hair swung from side to side as the car jerked and shuddered, but she barely seemed to notice.
The car stopped short, and she asked: “Do I get to go again?”
“I think so,” the driver said, unaware she had been through far worse in CIA training.
“Yes!” she responded.
Later, she rode in the pace car on the banked three-quarter-mile, D-shaped track.
That same unflappability was on display during her first town hall. The rec center in rural Goochland was packed with Brat supporters who quizzed her on abortion, socialism and “sanctuary cities,” although there are none in Virginia.
“I know there’s quite a few people in the room who didn’t vote for me, and I thank you . . . very sincerely for challenging me, because the bottom line in a district like this, it is a 50-50 district. People like to say, ‘Oh, we flipped the district.’ ” She added as an aside, “Democrats like to say that.”
But the composition of the district did not change, she said.
“We worked hard to get people to give me a chance, and what that means is that I work for everybody,” she said.
She said she’s also working to gain the trust of Republicans in Congress, using some of the skills that she honed at the CIA.
First, she looks for a connection. She’ll sometimes enter the House floor through the GOP section, which allows her to stop and chat with members of the other party. If they’re from rural communities, she tries to connect over common issues, such as the scarcity of broadband Internet service.
But for every Republican she wins over, more hope to unseat her.
In addition to Ramirez, GOP observers name state lawmakers Nicholas J. Freitas (Culpeper), John McGuire (Henrico) and Bryce E. Reeves (Spotsylvania) as potential challengers.
National Republican groups are painting Spanberger as no different from Ocasio-Cortez.
“She’ll find out the hard way that there are two teams,” Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist and former executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, said of Spanberger. “There aren’t three teams. Even voting with her team 90 percent of the time may not be good enough to get reelected.”
Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a progressive on the leadership team, isn’t worried.
“She’s old-school Virginia,” he said. “She’s interested in rational debate and discussion to make progress. . . . She’s not an ideologue.”
He added: “To me, she’s the face of the swing districts that we need to capture and defend.”