Virginia emerging as ground zero in battle for House majority

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(The Hill) — Virginia is emerging as ground zero in next year’s battle for the House majority, with three Democrats — more than a quarter of its delegation — facing sharp headwinds in their reelection bids.

The decennial redistricting process could alter the calculation, but as it stands Democratic Reps. Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger, and Jennifer Wexton, representing the state’s 2nd, 7th, and 10th congressional districts, respectively, are in tough races, and the drubbing Democrats took in the state last week only highlighted the difficult road ahead. 

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) made gains in all three districts as he cruised to victory over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), winning Luria’s district by roughly 8 points and Spanberger’s district by 15 points. Spanberger won by just shy of 2 points in 2020, while Luria carried her district by about 5.5 points. 

Last week’s “election results make it very clear Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger are doomed in 2022,” said National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (NRCC) spokeswoman Camille Gallo.

While McAuliffe won Wexton’s district, which is located in reliably blue Northern Virginia, the NRCC announced less than 24 hours after Youngkin’s win that Wexton would be added to its offensive target list. Youngkin’s campaign focused in part on Loudoun County, which is a part of Wexton’s district, as the county became the country’s epicenter for the battle between parents and school boards. 

“I think the interesting one is Virginia 10 for sure,” said Virginia-based Republican strategist Zack Roday, referring to the district Wexton won by 13 points in 2020. 

“I think most had thought Northern Virginia was highly unlikely. Now you can clearly see routes for three,” he added.  

Democrats across the country are facing down the possibility of a bleak 2022, when they must contend with a redistricting process that looks as though it will favor Republicans, resurgent grassroots energy among GOP voters and historical trends that favor the party out of power in the first midterms under a new president. 

A Suffolk University poll released this week found Republicans leading Democrats on the congressional generic ballot by 8 points, 46 to 38%.

Republicans say they are itching to tie vulnerable Democrats to Biden, citing his faltering approval ratings. The same Suffolk University survey showed the president’s approval rating at a dismal 38%.

“Every poll shows a new low,” Roday said. “Jeez, it seems like there’s no other way for him to go except to flatline and maybe go up a little.”  

Aaron Cutler, a former senior adviser to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who represented Spanberger’s district from 2001 to 2014, also noted neither of Virginia’s popular Democratic senators is up for reelection, leaving House candidates without a popular name at the top of ticket to tie themselves to.

The GOP also appears eager to tie vulnerable Democrats to the party’s progressive flank, a strategy that could play well in Virginia’s swing districts.  

“The progressive message, the Trump bashing, that’s not working in Virginia right now,” Cutler said. 

Spanberger, in an attempt to counter that message, has long sought to distance herself from her party’s left-wing members. Last week, she raised eyebrows during an interview with The New York Times when she said that Biden was elected by the American people to “be normal and stop the chaos” and not to be another Franklin Roosevelt. 

The comments, which took place before the House passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, got pushback from some within her party, including Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“We just passed the most important infrastructure bill in our country’s history and it will be widely popular with voters,” Maloney told the Times on Tuesday. “I think those comments are already out of date. What is wrong with F.D.R. if you get the achievements?” 

Democrats argue that it’s still too early to be reading the tea leaves on how competitive congressional districts will fare a year out from the midterms, pointing to a number of factors including a potential change in the national environment and the redistricting battle that is looming over states like Virginia. 

Various Democrats cited last week’s better-than-expected jobs report as well as the passage of Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure deal last week. 

Spanberger has pointed to the legislation’s goal of expanding broadband coverage and repairing lead pipes and service lines in her district. Democratic allies say the bill will benefit virtually every district in the country, including Luria’s, which is home to the Port of Virginia and a large military presence in Hampton Roads. 

“This is absolutely a win for the Virginia Democratic coalition,” said Brad Komar, independent expenditure director at the House Majority PAC. 

“Anybody that doesn’t believe infrastructure impacts Virginia hasn’t sat in hours of traffic on 66, 95 and 64,” he quipped. 

Komar, who also ran Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) successful gubernatorial campaign in 2017, predicted that Democratic turnout will be even higher 2022. 

“We’re going to have a more federal turnout next year, which is going to be a more Democratic electorate than the odd-year electorate,” Komar said, noting past Democratic performances in districts, like the 10th, which Northam won by 11 points in 2017 and Wexton won by 13 in 2018. Komar also pointed to Democrats holding on to a number of House of Delegates seats in suburban Virginia but conceded the party underperformed in exurban and rural areas. 

Democrats also cite redistricting as a major factor, noting population changes and growth. Virginia’s Redistricting Commission’s move to redraw districts earlier in the fall ended in a deadlock between Republicans and Democrats. Now the responsibility has fallen on the state’s Supreme Court. 

Both Republicans and Democrats point to the very real possibility that bruising GOP primaries in these districts could ultimately benefit Democrats in the general election. 

“If Republicans cannibalize themselves enough, then it could make it easier for Dems to win afterwards,” Cutler said.  

So far, five Republicans have filed to run in the 2nd District’s primary, while six have declared in the 10th District. In the 7th District, six Republicans have filed to run, including state senator and former gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase (R). 

Chase, who hails from the conservative, pro-Trump wing of the party, was defeated by Youngkin in the state’s GOP convention earlier this year. Many say that she would have had a better chance at winning in a primary versus a convention, where delegates used a rank-choice voting process. 

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik’s (N.Y.) Elevate PAC endorsed Jen Kiggins in the 2nd District and Jeanine Lawson in the 10th District on Tuesday. The PAC named Virginia’s 7th District candidate Taylor Keeney to its “Women to Watch” list.

The primary so far appears to mirror the tensions between the party’s establishment and populist wings last seen in 2014, when former Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) ousted Cantor in the district’s primary. 

“This is ground zero for the struggle for the party,” said one Republican strategist. 

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