On the cusp
Virginia is bellwether in midterm elections
Once again, Virginia is a significant factor in this year’s national electoral playing field, in which Democrats are jockeying to stay in power and Republicans are anticipated to make midterm gains.
Three congressional districts in the commonwealth — all held by Democratic female incumbents — are considered vulnerable to the GOP by differing degrees.
The competitive races in Virginia’s 2nd, 7th and 10th congressional districts not only will determine which party will hold the majority of the state’s 11 newly redrawn districts, but whether Republicans can regain control in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In Hampton Roads, Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria is running for re-election against Republican state Sen. Jennifer Kiggans in the 2nd District. Luria’s prominence as part of the Jan. 6 congressional investigation has amplified her role at the Capitol but also made her more of a target, especially after Democratic-leaning parts of Norfolk were drawn out of the district after the 2020 U.S. Census.
The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics ranked the Kiggans-Luria race as a toss-up in late August, and the competitive 7th District was deemed “leans Democratic,” favoring incumbent U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who is running against Republican Yesli Vega, a Prince William County supervisor and auxiliary deputy with the county sheriff’s office. The 2021 redrawing of Virginia’s districts shifted Spanberger’s district to the north, removing Richmond’s suburbs and including Fredericksburg and the counties of Prince William, Stafford, Culpeper, Orange and Greene, among others.
Finally, there’s Northern Virginia’s 10th District, where Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton is defending a seat she flipped in 2018. Wexton’s opponent is Hung Cao, a retired U.S. Navy captain who emerged from a crowded GOP primary of 10 prospective challengers. It’s not likely to flip, state political analysts say, but if it does, it would likely signal a massive Republican wave. Think 2014, when the GOP won 247 seats in the House of Representatives — a 59-seat majority — during Barack Obama’s last term as president.
“Virginia’s interesting in terms of the [potential GOP] wave,” says A.J. Nolte, assistant professor in the Robertson School of Government at Virginia Beach’s Regent University. “If you think about [a] beach analogy, if Luria wins, Democrats aren’t even getting their toes wet. If Hung Cao wins, they probably didn’t spend enough money on flood insurance.”
August polling in Virginia showed Spanberger with a 5-point edge over Vega, and Luria also leading Kiggans by 5 points.
Earlier in the year, the conventional wisdom viewed a GOP sweep of the House and Senate this fall as increasingly likely, amid low approval ratings plaguing President Joe Biden, gas exceeding $5 a gallon and inflation hitting its highest rate in four decades. Now, that outcome is less sure, political observers note.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling to overturn Roe vs. Wade, leaving many states without access to legalized abortion due to state trigger laws, has energized Democratic and some independent voters who want to see a Democratic-controlled Congress pass federal legislation to allow abortions. Biden and House Democrats sought to pass laws this year, but the tightly controlled Senate — as well as a filibuster rule that required a 60-vote majority to enact legislation — prevented it.
But after that predicted failure, gas prices declined below $3.50 and Biden notched some successes: pledging to forgive up to $20,000 in student loans for Pell Grant recipients and other people with federal loans due, as well as passing inflation reduction, infrastructure and semiconductor chips spending bills.
Another possible factor governing voter enthusiasm: The raid on Mar-a-Lago, in which FBI agents recovered thousands of classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Florida resort in August as part of an investigation into violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and criminal handling of government records. Although it’s not clear that Trump or anyone else will be criminally charged in connection with the investigation, the event has stoked partisan emotions. In a Sept. 1 prime-time address to the nation, Biden condemned “MAGA Republicans” who support Trump’s false claims of a stolen 2020 election, unprovable cases of election fraud and violent political statements like those that led up to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
In a Wall Street Journal poll conducted Aug. 17-25, 64% of Republican respondents said they’re more likely to vote in November due to the FBI search, while 37% of independent voters and 36% of Democrats said they were more likely to vote because of the search.
In August, Democrats celebrated the congressional win of Mary Peltola in Alaska, where she becomes the first Alaska Native woman to hold congressional office. The special election was held to replace the late U.S. Rep. Don Young, but a second regular election takes place in November. Among Peltola’s opponents in August and this fall is former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who has since complained about the state’s use of a ranked-choice ballot in the special election.
Palin’s August loss aside, many experts still predict Republicans will win control of the House of Representatives this fall — but The Cook Political Report wrote in September that a GOP majority in the House is “no longer a foregone conclusion.”
The party in control of the White House historically performs poorly in midterm elections — and Biden’s approval ratings have been historically low.
As of Sept. 1, Rasmussen and Wall Street Journal polls showed Biden’s job approval rating at 44% and 45%, respectively, while 54% disapproved, putting him 9 to 10 percentage points underwater. Polling site FiveThirtyEight also had Biden’s approval rate at a similar 42.3% on Sept. 15.
Democrats in Virginia are well aware of the possibility of failure, as Gov. Glenn Youngkin led a GOP sweep last November of the state’s top offices, with Republicans also regaining control of the Virginia House of Delegates. Pundits noted in 2021 that the party in control of the White House has historically lost the governor’s race the following year, and with significant numbers of suburban voters having jumped on the affable, fleece-vest-wearing Youngkin’s bandwagon, Republicans won their first statewide victories since 2009.
The Republican Party of Virginia say it’s a reaction to the public’s displeasure with Democrats and the Biden White House. “Virginians are tired of the Biden administration’s failed policy agenda that is hurting American families at the pump, the grocery store and everywhere in between,” says Ellie Sorensen, the state party’s press secretary.
Yet Virginia Democrats say abortion rights — which are currently protected in Virginia by Democrats’ narrow majority in the state Senate — are a major incentive for liberal-leaning voters to vote this year and next.
“It comes down to choice for everyone who lives here,” says Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Susan Swecker. “Do you want to elect officials who will defend reproductive rights or empower those who want to rip them away?”
Nevertheless, analysts opine that Biden’s low approval ratings and rising inflation still tilt the odds slightly toward the GOP.
“I still view it as a Republican-leaning midterm environment,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an online political newsletter and election handicapper produced by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Virginia’s congressional candidates are running in new districts for the first time in a decade. Virginia’s new bipartisan redistricting commission deadlocked after the 2020 Census, leading to the Virginia Supreme Court appointing experts to draw the districts.
The new maps tilted Luria’s district slightly more Republican.
“The map still favors Republicans, although the new map has fewer wasted Democratic votes,” says Amanda Wintersieck, associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The 2nd was a safer district for Democrats prior to redrawing lines. Today it is more Republican.”
The 2nd District consists largely of Hampton Roads communities, centered on the Republican-leaning swing city of Virginia Beach. Its congressional seat has flipped between political parties four times since 2000. Luria is running to hold it in a challenging atmosphere, against a strong candidate in state Sen. Kiggans.
Kiggans says her time in the Virginia Senate has given her “a firsthand look at the danger and insanity of liberal, one-party political rule here in the commonwealth,” the nurse practitioner and Navy veteran helicopter pilot says. Her first two years in the Senate, after she won a seat in 2019 formerly held by Democrats, coincided with Democratic control of both legislative houses and the top three state offices.
“I’m running for Congress to restore American strength in our economy, communities, borders and our military,” Kiggans says. “Virginians are suffering at the gas pump, at the grocery store and everywhere in between. Americans have a choice whether or not they want to continue like this for two more years or make a change.”
Luria, who also was a naval officer before taking congressional office in 2019, cites her experience running a business as a formative experience, saying it led her to lobby the General Assembly “to change the restrictive licensing red tape on businesses like mine and expand opportunities for others.” (Luria and her husband established and later sold a small local retail chain and art studio, The Mermaid Factory, specializing in mermaid-themed souvenirs.)
“Supporting the business community remains one of my top priorities in Congress,” Luria says, “and I am committed to ensuring businesses and working families have the resources they need to thrive.”
As for her participation in the House of Representatives’ Jan. 6 select committee, Luria says the day of the U.S. Capitol raid was “one of the darkest days of our democracy,” and adds that protecting the country’s democratic institutions is a key part of her oath to uphold the Constitution.
Chris Saxman, executive director of Virginia FREE and a former Republican delegate, says this argument probably matters less in the 2nd District than it would in areas closer to Washington, D.C.
“It’s important to differentiate the 2nd from statewide,” Saxman says. “The level of intensity against Trump in the Northern Virginia area is off the charts, because he ran against the swamp. ‘Drain the swamp’ — that’s Northern Virginia. There’s deep antipathy for Donald Trump in that area, [but] with him not on the ballot, I don’t know how much of an accelerant and stimulant it is for anti-Trump voters.”
The 7th District is considered only slightly less competitive than the 2nd. Spanberger defeated two-term Republican U.S. Rep. David Brat to win election in 2018 amid the same Democratic wave that put Luria and Wexton in office. Redistricting saw the 7th District lose some Republican-leaning Richmond suburbs but pick up more Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia suburbs.
“It’s a mildly-leaning-Democratic seat,” Kondik says. “Biden won it by 7 points. It’s probably one of the most expensive, high- profile House races in all the country. Republicans look at this and say, ‘This is the type of seat that should flip in a year like this.’”
Because of the boundary shifts, Spanberger is new to many of its voters and has had to reintroduce herself. The former CIA officer has walked a fine line — pushing back against party leader Nancy Pelosi and the progressive House “squad” — to win and retain her previous district, which was held by Republicans for more than three decades.
“In no particular order, the issues that I hear Virginians talk about the most are high costs at the grocery store and pharmacy counter, public safety and the fundamental threat to privacy as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Spanberger says. “I’m focused on moving solutions forward that businesses know will help all Virginians get ahead — like strengthening support for workforce training programs, cutting burdensome and unnecessary red tape, and expanding high-speed broadband internet access.”
A Prince William County supervisor and former police officer, Vega decries how “massive government handouts” during the pandemic disrupted the economy.
“The economy is the top issue for voters in our district right now,” Vega says. “Our country is in a recession and people are struggling to make ends meet with soaring gas and food prices. With the cost of living through the roof, my top priority will be working to relieve the burden of increased costs on our nation’s citizens and reduce unnecessary taxes and regulations that are crushing our small businesses.”
In late August, The Cook Political Report moved the race from a toss-up to “leans Democratic.” Kondik gives Spanberger an edge as well. “My guess is she and her campaign will be able to make some hay out of what Vega has said about abortion,” he says.
In June at a Stafford County event, Vega expressed support for more restrictions on abortion, before adding, “The left will say, ‘Well, what about in cases of rape or incest?’ I’m a law enforcement officer. I became a police officer in 2011. I’ve worked one case where as a result of a rape, the young woman became pregnant.”
Spanberger tweeted that her opponent’s words were “extreme and ignorant,” and the state Democratic party has continued to push the issue in statements through the summer.
But Regent University’s Nolte says Vega’s comments likely will make less difference to voters than economic issues.
“In a neutral economy, social issues are potentially a very effective wedge,” Nolte says. “Inflation numbers and gas prices have gone down some. They would have to go down a lot further for this not to be an economic election and referendum on Biden.”
The 10th District only recently flipped after being represented by Republicans since 1981. Democrat Wexton defeated incumbent Republican Barbara Comstock in 2018 by 13 points and held the seat by the same margin in 2020.
“It’s been my top priority to bring down costs for Virginians and ease the burden of inflation on families’ budgets,” Wexton says. “I’m proud that we’ve passed major legislation to lower health care and prescription drug costs, take meaningful action to combat climate change and ensure a healthy planet for our future, and tackle inflation while reducing the deficit.”
Analysts see the 10th District as less competitive than either the 2nd or 7th.
“Biden won it by 18 points, and Republicans don’t hold any districts currently that came close to that margin,” Kondik says. “The best Biden district they hold is 10 or 11 points. It flips if it’s a mega [GOP] wave. I’m skeptical of that. It’s still a Republican wave year, but not quite as sharp as most wave years.”
Nolte also ranks the 10th as the least competitive of Virginia’s three districts in play. But he sees a possible route for Republicans, particularly if Cao can pull big numbers among Asian voters. Nolte also identifies an additional campaign dynamic to watch: Youngkin’s travels to support GOP candidates in other states.
Democrats have used his busy travel schedule — including trips to Michigan, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, New Mexico and Oregon — to question his interest in serving as governor, and Youngkin has not definitively said he is uninterested in a presidential run.
“It’s not too early to start thinking about 2024,” Nolte says — a nod to the next presidential election. “Watch the endorsements and watch who is coming and campaigning for whom. In and out of Virginia, what is Youngkin doing?”