Va. has 5 U.S. House rookies. Here’s how they spent their first year.

By: - January 27, 2020 12:01 am

The U.S. Capitol on December 18, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Nearly half of Virginia’s U.S. House members are freshmen, hoping this year won’t be their last in Congress. 

Five of the state’s 11 representatives in the U.S. House are serving their first term, and four of them are expected to face competitive reelection races in November. They’ve all spent their first year in office attempting to advance their pet issues, build up their campaign coffers and get face time with voters back in their districts. 

The closest race this fall could be for the seat now held by Rep. Elaine Luria, who might face off against the same GOP lawmaker she unseated in 2018. But freshmen Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton could also have close races, as could Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman. 

Republican Rep. Ben Cline isn’t expected to face a tough race in his deep red district, although it’s still early in the campaign season. 

One year in, here’s a look at what Virginia’s freshmen have been up to so far: 

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-2nd District

2018 election: Luria narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Rep. Scott Taylor in a district that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a 3.4-point margin. 

House committees: Armed Services; Veterans’ Affairs

U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk.

Legislation: Luria has been the lead sponsor on 11 bills in the 116th Congress, including three that became law and another that passed the House. One enacted bill would help ensure that donations to families of victims of the Virginia Beach mass shooting are tax-deductible. Another provides a cost-of-living adjustment to veterans and the third renamed a Virginia Beach post office after Ryan “Keith” Cox, one of the 12 people shot and killed in the Virginia Beach shooting last May. Another Luria bill, which directs the government to study the accessibility of Department of Veterans Affairs’ websites to individuals with disabilities, passed the House in October. 

Trump voting record: Luria has voted in line with Trump 6.2% of the time since taking office, according to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight. 

Reflections: “Being an effective resource for Coastal Virginia means maintaining an active presence in our community and providing constituents with outstanding service,” she said in a statement. “Over the past year, I have had the honor of meeting with countless constituent organizations and helping connect people to important government agencies. I’m excited to [continue] to serve the hardworking people of Virginia’s Second Congressional District at the same high level in 2020.”

2020 priorities: “From securing a much-needed raise for veterans’ disability benefits to championing the health of our Chesapeake Bay, I will continue to make sure that our community’s priorities are heard throughout the halls of Congress,” Luria said in a statement. 

Reelection prospects: Luria’s race is rated a toss up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Taylor announced that he’ll vie for his old seat in 2020, rather than running against Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. But first he’ll have to get through a GOP primary against Ben Loyola, Jarome Bell and Andy Baan. 

“On paper, [Luria] probably would have a close race, but we would see her as probably at least a slight favorite there,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. 

Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-5th District)

2018 election: Riggleman beat Democrat Leslie Cockburn by 6.6 percentage points in the race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Tom Garrett. In 2016, Trump won the district by 11 points.  

House committees: Financial Services

U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson.  (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Legislation: Riggleman has been the lead sponsor of seven bills, one of which has passed the House. That bipartisan bill requires the Department of the Treasury to report semiannually on financial services provided to benefit state sponsors of terrorism. 

Trump voting record: Riggleman has voted with Trump 93.8% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. 

Reflections: “The most surprising thing I learned about serving in Congress is how often members, including friends of mine, put politics over policy and partisanship over people,” Riggleman said in a statement. “As a former CEO, business owner and Air Force Veteran who thinks of Congress as an act of service, not a career field, I was surprised at the partisan nature of many of the bills in the House. Most times, the bill header and titles do not match the language underneath. It’s frustrating that hyperbole and misdirection are tools perfected by many politicians.”

Asked about his biggest accomplishments in Congress, Riggleman pointed to his efforts to expand hemp production and his work to increase broadband access in rural areas. 

2020 priorities: “Southside is positioned for agricultural dominance based upon its storied history as a tobacco, timber, dairy and produce juggernaut,” he said. “I can prioritize expanded access to rural housing and continue to decrease the regulatory burden of business owners who create and sustain jobs in Southside. Agriculture and technology growth combined with deregulation can continue to stimulate Southside’s economy.” 

Reelection prospects: Cook Political Report ranks Riggleman’s district as “likely Republican.” Several Democrats and a Republican have filed to run against him in 2020.  

Rep. Ben Cline (R-6th District)

2018 election: Cline easily defeated Democrat Jennifer Lewis in the 2018 contest to replace former Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte. Cline won by about 20 points in the district that Trump won by 24.6 points in 2016. 

House committees: Education and Labor; Judiciary

Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt. (Photo by Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images)

Legislation: Cline is the lead sponsor of two bills this Congress, including one that became law. That bill is intended to simplify the process for small businesses to use bankruptcy as a means of reorganization. Cline has also introduced a bill that would require that immigration authorities be notified if a background check for a gun is rejected due to the applicant being in the country without authorization. 

Trump voting record: Cline has voted with Trump 95.4% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. 

Reflections: Cline is the only Virginia lawmaker on the House Judiciary Committee, which spent recent months focused on the impeachment investigation against Trump. Cline has been a vocal critic of the impeachment and a staunch defender of the president. 

“Many of us on this committee are angry. Many of us watching at home across America are angry because this show has degenerated into a farce,” Cline said last month. “It should be the people of the United States who get to decide who their president is in 2020.”

Cline has “been something of an attack dog for Trump there just to kind of get his name out there,” said Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. 

2020 priorities: Cline’s office did not respond to a request for comment about his priorities for the year. 

Reelection prospects: Cook Political Report doesn’t rate Cline’s race as competitive. 

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th District)

2018 election: Spanberger beat incumbent Republican Rep. Dave Brat by just 2 points in one of the hardest-fought races in the country. Trump won the district by 6.5 points in 2016. 

House committees: Agriculture; Foreign Affairs

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Legislation: Spanberger is the lead sponsor of 10 bills, two of which have passed the House. One that passed the chamber is aimed at lowering the costs of prescription drugs; the other would require the administration to develop a national strategy to protect the security of 5G telecommunications systems in the United States. Spanberger also highlighted legislation she co-sponsored with Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd to combat trafficking and smuggling activities throughout Central America. Trump signed that bill last month. 

Trump voting record: Spanberger voted with Trump 4.6% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. 

Reflections: Asked what has surprised her most about her first year in Congress, Spanberger noted that it’s like starting a small business on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers start from scratch to build up their teams. 

She’s surprised sometimes by the divisions that can occur among lawmakers, but also by the level of bipartisanship that does exist sometimes. “We do find places to work together,” she said. Another surprise: “Everything makes it to Twitter and into the news so, so quickly.” Coming from a CIA background where meetings don’t get live-tweeted, she said, “that was a surprise for me.” 

2020 priorities: “I’m used to doing hard things and I believe in what I’m doing and I think that I need to continue legislating and representing in the way that I wanted to before I was ever elected,” she told the Mercury in an interview. 

Reelection prospects: Cook Political Report rates the race as leaning Democrat. Spanberger has been amassing a formidable war chest. Republican Del. Nicholas J. Freitas is among the Republicans who have already lined up to challenge the incumbent congresswoman. 

Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-10th District)

2018 election: Wexton handily defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock in another high-profile race. Clinton won the district by 9.8 points in 2016. 

House committees: Financial Services; Science, Space and Technology

U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Leesburg. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Legislation: Wexton has introduced 10 bills so far; three of them have passed the House. One of those that passed the chamber is aimed at safeguarding the financial system from abuses like terrorist financing and money laundering. Another would require financial regulators to issue guidance that encourages financial institutions to work with consumers and businesses affected by a federal government shutdown; the third would support research on opioid addiction. 

Trump voting record: Wexton has voted with Trump 4.6% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. 

Reflections: “I’ve introduced three bipartisan bills and authored six amendments that have all passed the House, but I’m particularly proud of the work we did to secure paid parental leave for all federal employees,” Wexton said in a statement. “The U.S. is woefully behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to this issue, and the federal government has an opportunity and an obligation to lead by example. Not only will it directly improve the lives of tens of thousands of federal workers in my district and beyond, but it will also allow the government to attract and retain a new generation of workers to federal service.”

2020 priorities: “Improving the lives of my constituents — that includes making health care more affordable and accessible, reducing the cost of prescription drugs, tackling the epidemic of gun violence, lowering the burden of student loan debt, and fighting for our federal workers,” she said. 

Reelection prospects: Cook Political Report ranks Wexton’s race as likely Democratic. Several Republicans have entered the race to challenge her, including Rob Jones, a Marine veteran and double amputee. Wexton had more than $1 million in her campaign war chest at the end of September, when the last fundraising reports were due.  

“Her seat is pretty safe,” said Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He also pegged Wexton as a lawmaker who may be in a position to join House leadership someday, if she sticks around. 

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.