Virginia midterms could be early sign of whether GOP can match ‘megawave’ hype

Three Democrats elected in 2018 look to hold off Republican challengers

By: - November 2, 2022 12:04 am

Gov. Glenn Youngkin greets supporters during a Fredericksburg-area campaign rally for Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

As he took the stage last month at a 90s nostalgia restaurant in central Virginia — next to a mural that said “It was all a dream” — Gov. Glenn Youngkin assured an enthusiastic Republican crowd his 2021 victory was no off-year fluke.

“Can you feel it?” Youngkin said. “It’s happening again.”

Youngkin told the veteran-heavy audience at Gourmeltz, a Fredericksburg-area sandwich shop that made headlines for defying COVID-19 mask mandates, that Virginia’s sharp turn rightward was a preview of what could happen nationally in the midterm elections.

The governor gave one of his signature red vests to the event’s co-star, Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega, who told supporters no amount of “lies” or media bias can stop her from beating Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger and becoming the first Latina to represent Virginia in Congress.

“What’s been predestined for us in heaven, no man or liberal can take from us,” said Vega, a former police officer and daughter of Salvadoran immigrants who serves on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

At a campaign stop in the clubhouse of Prince William’s sprawling Potomac Shores development a week earlier, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine described what a wild few years it’s been since he was on the ballot with Spanberger during her first run for office in 2018.

Spanberger, a former CIA officer, famously flipped a Republican district that year by beating former GOP congressman and Tea Party favorite Dave Brat, who had shocked the political world himself by ousting former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary. Then came two presidential impeachment trials, Kaine said, a pandemic that led to a million American deaths, and an attack on the U.S. Capitol “orchestrated by a commander in chief” that forced members of Congress to barricade themselves in as rioters breached the building.

“I got nerves about this election,” Kaine told an overwhelmingly female crowd at a roundtable discussion on jobs and health care. “Because I think a lot’s at stake for our country.”

Asked in an interview what lessons she took from Virginia’s 2021 election, Spanberger said “a lot of voters in Virginia just kind of thought, ‘Oh look, we’re a blue state.’”

“And we’re not,” she said. “But I’ve never represented a blue district. I’ve always run for Congress in, frankly … a red district.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger speaks to the media at an early voting stop in Prince William County (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

With no U.S. Senate race or other statewide contest on the ballot, Virginia isn’t as close to the center of the national political conversation as it was in 2021. Democrats control seven of the state’s 11 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, a majority they gained after flipping three GOP-held districts in 2018, when suburban voters revolted against former President Donald Trump. 

This year, the overarching question is whether Republicans will regain none, some or all of that lost ground as the party looks to retake a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and potentially flip the U.S. Senate.

Three Democratic women who ousted Republicans in suburban battlegrounds in 2018 are playing the most defense in Virginia this year, with money pouring into their districts from both sides.

Spanberger is trying to hold off Vega in the redrawn 7th District, which 2021’s redistricting process shifted north from the Richmond suburbs to focus more on rural central Virginia, the Fredericksburg area and Prince William. 

In the Virginia Beach-anchored 2nd District, Republican state Sen. Jen Kiggans, a nurse practitioner and former Navy helicopter pilot, is running against Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander. 

In Northern Virginia’s 10th District, Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a lawyer and former state senator, is being challenged by Republican Hung Cao, a retired Navy captain who came to America as a Vietnamese refugee.

Political analysts rate the 2nd and 7th Districts as virtual tossups, with Luria facing a slightly tougher challenge than Spanberger because of her swing district’s stronger Republican tilt. The 10th is seen as more safely Democratic but potentially in play if the GOP has a surprisingly strong night.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that with no statewide race on the ballot, Virginia’s turnout picture is unclear. But if it’s close to what happened in Virginia in 2021, he said, it could be another good year for the GOP.

“That’s a world in which Luria loses. Spanberger is in big danger of losing,” Kondik said. “And Wexton is probably really close.”

Though Virginia is getting less attention than other bellwether states, Kondik said the early returns in the three competitive races could predict whether the country will see a Republican “megawave” (if all three districts flip) or mixed results more in line with typical midterms. If Democrats manage to hold all three Virginia seats, it would show Republicans may be falling flat in areas where they had high expectations.

The party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in the midterms, and numerous polls have pointed to growing GOP momentum in the late campaign season, with voters consistently rating economic concerns as a top issue. In some respects, Kondik said, that’s “a return to the basic fundamentals.”

“You’ve got an unpopular president in the White House,” Kondik said. “There are problems out there that the opposition party has a fairly easy time pinning on Democrats.”

‘People are ready for change’

As Election Day approaches, the two parties are presenting starkly different visions of what the country’s most pressing problems are, let alone how to fix them.

At Democratic events, reelecting the incumbent congresswomen is portrayed as a bulwark against an election-denying, abortion-banning Republican Party that offers no coherent governing vision and remains in thrall to a lawless former president.

At Republican events, ousting the nearest Democrat, regardless of their moderate branding, is pitched as the most direct way for voters to stop the pain of high inflation and restore common sense to a country awash in “woke” ideology that’s upending schools and public safety.

Republican candidates are trying to tie Virginia’s front-line Democrats to the economic policies pursued by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings have deteriorated in Virginia since his double-digit win in the state two years ago.

“Our gas bill last month was triple what it was when Trump was in,” said Cheryl Gates, a Spotsylvania County resident and Vega supporter who owns a paving company with her husband, Chris. “Try filling some dump trucks. Try filling ’em in this economy.”

Terry Barratt, a Prince William retiree on a fixed income who was working the Republican booth at an early voting site in the county, said a GOP Congress would “balance things.”

“Inflation has taken its toll,” Barratt said. “Every month I need to take more out of savings.”

Speaking to reporters after her rally with Youngkin, Vega said that “Virginians want more money in their pocket,” and higher taxes and more federal spending aren’t making life less expensive for everyone “feeling the squeeze right now.”

“People are ready for change,” Vega said. “And we’re going to give them that change.”

LAKE RIDGE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 14: Republican Congressional candidate Yesli Vega speaks at a Hispanic Get Out the Vote Rally on October 14, 2022 in Lake Ridge, Virginia. Vega, a former law enforcement officer is running against incumbent Abigail Spanberger in the general election for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District on November 8, 2022. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Spanberger, who regularly spotlights provisions in the Democratic Inflation Reduction Act designed to lower prescription drug costs for seniors and make health insurance cheaper for families who buy plans through government-run exchanges, said she empathizes with people who are “feeling uneasy” about the country’s direction.

“I recognize it every day,” Spanberger said. “Because I’m actually trying to do something about it.”

Spanberger said she wants to return to Congress so she can continue working to find solutions, and she gave a broad defense of the steps Democrats took to help the country through the pandemic and toward recovery.

“We would have never done these various pieces of legislation if things were normal,” Spanberger said. “When you look at our recovery, compared to peer nations, while I don’t like where we are yet, we are many many paces ahead … because of the hard choices that we made.”

How to vote

The deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail has already passed, but in-person early voting continues through Saturday.

On Election Day, the polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and anyone in line when the polls close will still be allowed to cast a ballot.

Virginia is implementing same-day registration for the first time this year, meaning anyone who’s not currently on the voter rolls can register in person and cast a ballot at the same time. However, those ballots are provisional, meaning they’re set aside for further vetting and will only be counted if all the registration info checks out.

Voters can check their registration status, find their polling place and see what’s on their ballot by visiting the online citizen portal from the Virginia Department of Elections.

‘I’m not your candidate’

The Democratic incumbents have sought to portray their opponents as extreme and out of step with the swing districts they hope to represent, particularly on election conspiracies that helped fuel the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and abortion policy.

Ted Harris, a retired engineer from Prince William who attended a campaign event with Spanberger during early voting at a local Department of Motor Vehicles office, said the choice to vote against Republicans isn’t a remotely close call.

“When they praise a fascist demagogue, what do you expect?” Harris said.

Luria, the only Democrat on the House’s Jan. 6 committee who is facing a tough reelection bid this year, has made protecting democracy and fair elections a hallmark of her closing campaign message. In an ad reiterating arguments she made in a debate against Kiggans, Luria says flatly she’s “not your candidate” if you believe the 2020 election was stolen, “support insurrectionists” or “attack the FBI and defend Donald Trump.”

“If standing up for what’s right means losing an election, so be it. If you’re looking for someone who will just say anything, just to win, I’m not your candidate,” Luria says in the video ad.

The Kiggans campaign riffed on that theme in a response posted to Twitter.

If you’re struggling under 8.5% inflation, she’s not your candidate,” Kiggans said. “If you’re worried about crime in your neighborhoods, she’s not your candidate.  If you think Biden and Pelosi are wrecking the country, she’s not your candidate!”

‘There’s a recording of her saying it’

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling this June that overturned the constitutional right to abortion seemed to give Democrats a potent issue to run on, reminding voters of the real-world consequences for women if anti-abortion lawmakers get power. However, its prominence as a decisive issue appears to have faded over time, with polls consistently showing independent voters are more concerned about the economy and inflation.

Kiggans, Vega and Cao have all said they’re pro-life, but all three have tried to avoid talking about the topic at length by insisting abortion policy is now a state decision, not a federal one.

Vega has received particular scrutiny for her views on abortion after a recording surfaced of her saying there might be some “truth” to the idea women are less likely to get pregnant from rape. Vega now insists her words were misconstrued, but Spanberger has called the comment “an affront to women who have been victims of sexual violence.”

There is a recording of her saying it,” Spanberger said in a news release last month.

After state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, recently announced she’ll push for a strict abortion ban in Virginia next year, Democrats seized on the prospect of the state bill to argue the GOP will indeed pursue draconian abortion policies if given the chance.

At the Spanberger campaign stop in Prince William, Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, talked up the importance of electing more women to office, with a caveat.

“Women change things,” Mundon King said. “But let me just say that not any old woman will do.”

‘A problem with parents’

Just as Democrats are highlighting state-level abortion legislation that could be coming, GOP candidates have sought to emphasize what they say is Democratic extremism on issues of transgender rights.

After Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, suggested in a TV interview that she would reintroduce a child abuse bill creating specific protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, conservatives seized on comments she made that seemed to suggest the law could be used against parents who don’t allow a child to change their gender identity. 

Guzman insists that’s not what her bill was intended to do, and numerous Democrats, including Wexton, have said they don’t support it. 

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from drawing connections between Guzman and the Democrats they’re targeting in the midterms.

“Jennifer Wexton has a problem with parents. And parents have a problem with Jennifer Wexton,” the narrator says in a Cao ad on Guzman’s proposal.

Wexton has sought to portray Cao as an extremist, running ads that reference his past comments calling global warming a “boogeyman” and saying he’d like to “punch Dr. Fauci in the face.”

A special election in the state Senate?

The narrowly divided Virginia General Assembly isn’t up for election for another year, but a Kiggans victory would set off a new special election battle to fill her state Senate seat.

Democrats currently hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate, which they say is the only thing stopping Republicans from passing stricter abortion regulations. A state Senate vacancy in a competitive district would give Democrats an opportunity to grow that advantage and create more of a buffer against GOP legislation. A Republican win would simply maintain the status quo.

The timing of a special election could be a point of contention, because Republicans and Democrats are locked in a procedural disagreement over whether the legislature is or isn’t in special session. That distinction matters, because if the General Assembly isn’t in session, Youngkin would have the power to set the date of the election as opposed to Democratic Senate leaders.

In 2019, Kiggans won the state Senate seat by about 500 votes.

Campaign signs outside the election office in Prince William County, a closely watched battleground in the midterm contests. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.