THE DISPATCH, HARVEST PRUDE
In the era of Joe Biden’s presidency, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger is in just about the most exciting—and the most fragile—place to be: the middle.
Post-mortems of the 2020 election largely held that it was the middle—suburban voters, independents, nonvoters and moderate-to-conservative Democrats—that delivered Biden the presidency and Democrats one-party control of Washington. Biden appealed to these voters in part with a message of restoration of norms—an implication he would seek to restore a corroding American center, fast disappearing under a tug of war between the progressive left and the far right. In his inauguration speech, he continued that theme, pledging to work across the aisle and to be the president for all Americans.
Then, of course, the grim reality of governing—and governing with razor thin majorities at that—set in.
Progressives with megaphones, amplified by the national media, have urged their party to go big and Biden to embrace a role as the next Lyndon Johnson who will usher in another Great Society. Moderates in the party, more skeptical that their party has a big-government mandate, argue instead that Democrats should focus on working across the aisle and cutting deals with Republicans.
Enter Spanberger: She represents Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which is cobbled together largely by rural and suburban enclaves. Spanberger’s approach was shaped by a career working on drug and money laundering cases as a federal law enforcement officer for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, before shifting to issues of terrorism and nuclear proliferation as a case officer for the CIA. In 2014, she left the intelligence sector to join a consulting firm that focused on the education industry. Spanberger has a central message for her colleagues and voters: Enough with the sloganeering, let’s focus on results.
“I have to spend every single day talking about the policies I support … with people whose natural inclination is not to vote for a Democrat,” Spanberger told The Dispatch. “I can’t stand in front of a room and sort of give an applause line and have that be it because, you know, half the room—if it’s representative of my district—isn’t going to respond to that applause line. And so I’ve got to talk through, this is why I advocate for this issue.”
A Blue Dog Democrat, Spanberger is the type of lawmaker that makes majorities; she also represents the type of district that her party only tenuously holds. Virginia’s 7th District snakes across Central Virginia, from rural Culpeper down to Chesterfield and Henrico of Richmond’s suburbs. Former President Donald Trump won the district by seven points in 2016.
Spanberger’s surprise 2-point victory in 2018 against Rep. Dave Brat—a rock-ribbed conservative and member of the House Freedom Caucus—upset decades of GOP representation in the 7th, including a stint by former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. She narrowly won again in 2020 in an incredibly expensive campaign against Republican State Delegate Nick Freitas, this time by 1.8 points. Biden’s carrying the district likely helped her.
“My whole point is we are now the majority party. We now have the responsibility of actually governing,” Spanberger said. “I find it just so surprising that instead of saying, this is what we’re doing, and these are the policies we’re for—that it’s sometimes easier to just be reductive down to a slogan.”
Just days after the 2020 election, in which the GOP unseated 13 largely moderate House Democrats, Spanberger became a leading voice for centrist frustrations. In a private caucus conference call in November, she lambasted the party’s dalliance with socialism and tolerance for slogans like “Defund the Police,” which had spooked voters, given GOP ad-writers a field day, and cost Democrats seats she said they should have won.
Those losses must have felt particularly brutal given the rosy prognostications of pollsters, some of whom predicted Democrats would gain as many as 15 seats.
“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” she said on the call. “We lost good members because of that.” She added: “if we are classifying Tuesday as a success … we will get f—ing torn apart in 2022.”
It doesn’t seem like the party has heeded her warning in the months since.
Take the current fight over infrastructure reform. Democrats want to pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill as well as a reconciliation bill chock-full of trillions for social programs. Spanberger believes that Biden’s insistence on meeting for weeks with Republicans in hopes of a deal—a deal that has since tentatively come together—is a clear call to congressional Democrats to prioritize physical infrastructure.
“I think it’s a mistake or unnecessary … to tie it with anything else,” Spanberger said. The “anything else” is a reference to the $3.5 trillion reconciliation proposal, currently in framework form, that would include Biden’s agenda on health care, education, climate, and poverty programs.
“Reconciliation frequently takes much, much longer. And so I don’t see any reason why we should be slowing or hamstringing a deal that’s already there, on a major priority for the American people, because we’re still waiting to talk about and hash out some other piece of legislation that, you know, is still in its infancy,” Spanberger reasoned. “As soon as the Senate votes on the physical infrastructure legislation, then I think the House should take an immediate vote.”
Here she is out of step with Democratic leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have said that the reconciliation package and infrastructure deal should pass in tandem. Pelosi on Thursday told reporters that the House won’t take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the reconciliation bill.
Being out of step with her party is not a new position for the sophomore lawmaker. When she first came into office in 2019, she fulfilled a campaign pledge by becoming one of 15 Democratic lawmakers who refused to vote for Pelosi to assume the speaker position. She’s since taken other tough votes, such as declining to support the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief and stimulus package.
Behind Spanberger’s willingness to buck her party is the uncomfortable fact that she will likely face another tough election come 2022. The National Republican Congressional Committee has her in its sights: She was on the first public list of Democratic lawmakers the NRCC said it was targeting come midterm elections.
The GOP nominee will likely follow the same playbook Freitas ran in 2020—trying to link her to Pelosi, reminding voters of Spanberger’s vote in favor of impeaching Trump, and portraying her as favoring “more government intervention.”
Spanberger is also quick to point out the legislation that she’s reached across the aisle to work on. Her issues are largely kitchen table ones: she wants to lower the cost of prescription drug prices, expand rural areas’ internet access, and allow farmers access to the carbon credit market for sustainable environmental practices.
On each of those issues, she’s introduced a bill co-sponsored by a Republican. Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who is working with Spanberger on the Growing Climate Solutions Act, said in an emailed statement to The Dispatch that he has enjoyed working with Spanberger on the issue. “I appreciate her passion for our agriculture sector,” he said.
The nonpartisan group Common Ground, which measures members’ tendency to seek bipartisan solutions on social and political issues, rates Spanberger among its top ten lawmakers.
While outspoken progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tend to steal the spotlight and garner an outsized share of social media attention, moderates like Spanberger are more representative of the Democratic party as a whole. That’s according to Mo Elleithee, a Democratic political strategist and executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, who told The Dispatch: “The Twitter base loves ‘Defund the Police,’ but most Democratic voters don’t.”
“We could go through a lot of the 2018 midterms, there were more Conor Lambs and Abigail Spanbergers nominated than there were AOCs nominated,” he added. He also referenced the recent New York Democratic mayoral primary, in which Eric Adams, the more moderate, pro-law enforcement candidate bested the more progressive, Justice Democrat-type candidate to his left.
Spanberger and Ocasio-Cortez both support police reform, Elleithee noted, but the difference is that Spanberger has rejected the “Defund the Police” movement as a whole: “That’s a very palatable place for a lot of voters who might get freaked out by the slogan … but still understand that changes need to be made…The political strength is actually on that side. They shouldn’t feel the need to tiptoe around it.”