Democrat attacks Republican's abortion flub in key Virginia congressional race

A Democratic congresswoman in a key swing district in Virginia is pushing to take advantage of a backlash to the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling to fend off a Republican challenger who represents growing support for the GOP in the Hispanic community.

Yesli Vega, a Latina police officer with the Prince William County Sheriff’s Office, won the Republican primary for Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District in late June, beating out a crowded field to face incumbent Democrat Rep. Abigail Spanberger this fall.

A week after Vega’s primary win, comments by her questioning whether it’s harder for rape victims to become pregnant went public. Vega’s remarks were captured on tape and delivered anonymously to the press.

Spanberger is intent on capitalizing on Vega’s mistake, at a moment when polling shows that the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which ended federal abortion protections, is bolstering Democrats ahead of the November midterms.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger at news conference.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger at news conference on Capitol Hill in April. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“I have an opponent who doesn’t even understand the basic biology, doubts whether you can get pregnant from rape, is willing to go into her decision about other people’s lives, driven by ideology and her extreme position,” Spanberger said Tuesday in an interview with Yahoo News.

“While I think the Dobbs decision is impacting people across the country and races across the country, I think in our district, in particular, the distinction between my opponent and me, and our positions on this issue, are even more black and white.”

The Spanberger campaign is eager to highlight the issue. After the anti-abortion group SBA Pro-Life America backed Vega last Friday, the Spanberger campaign issued a press release Tuesday drawing attention to the endorsement and saying that SBA “opposes contraception,” specifically IUDs and the morning after pill. (The SBA disputed that characterization, telling Yahoo News that the group does “not take a position on contraception.”)

The comments in question were made by Vega in May and published by Axios Richmond in late June. Vega was recorded speaking to an unidentified person, and she expressed skepticism that rape victims become pregnant with any regularity.

“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,” Vega said at a campaign event.

Yesli Vega holding a microphone standing in front of the American flag.
Yesli Vega following her Republican primary win on June 21 in Woodbridge, Va. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Later, the unidentified person asked Vega, “I’ve actually heard that it’s harder for a woman to get pregnant if she’s been raped. Have you heard that?”

Vega responded: “Well, maybe because there’s so much going on in the body. I don’t know. I haven’t, you know, seen any studies. But if I’m processing what you’re saying, it wouldn’t surprise me. Because it’s not something that’s happening organically. You’re forcing it. The individual, the male, is doing it as quickly — it’s not like, you know — and so I can see why there is truth to that.”

Vega’s remarks were similar to those made by another Republican candidate a decade ago, Todd Akin. Akin’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Missouri was sunk when he said that pregnancies resulting from rape were “really rare” and that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that about 3 million U.S. women have become pregnant as the result of rape, and that rape statistics are undercounted because victims often do not report their assault.

After Vega’s comments went public, her campaign said that the abortion issue was a distraction.

“Liberals are desperate to distract from their failed agenda of record high gas and grocery prices, and skyrocketing crime,” Vega told the Washington Post in a statement. “For all the left-wing bloggers and media, as a mother of two children, yes I’m fully aware of how women get pregnant.”

Vega has expressed support for a 15-week ban on abortion in Virginia, which Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, has pushed for. That bill would likely include exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.

Yesli Vega waves from the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas.
Vega at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on Monday. (LM Otero/AP)

But Vega has not said whether, if she were elected to Congress, she would vote for or against any effort to ban abortion nationwide, potentially even from conception. Vega has previously said on candidate questionnaires that she supports “a law to protect innocent life from conception to natural death.” Her campaign did not respond to a question on this issue from Yahoo News.

Sean Brown, an adviser to the Vega campaign, told Richmond’s public radio outlet VPM News a month ago that Vega supported the Supreme Court’s ruling “returning the decision to the states.”

“The people in each state can work to elect governors and legislators that will defend all life, like voters in Virginia did last year,” Brown told VPM.

Spanberger spokesman Connor Joseph told Yahoo News, when asked if the congresswoman favors restrictions at any point in a pregnancy, that “Abigail has always said that these decisions should be made between a mother and her doctor — and that politicians should not be involved.”

A late July poll released roughly a month after Vega’s comments showed her trailing Spanberger by 5 points, 46% to 41%, with 10% undecided.

Then, on Sept. 1, the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan organization handicaps races, moved this race from the “toss-up” column to “lean Democratic.”

The national political environment has shifted favorably toward Democrats in recent weeks for a few reasons. Gas prices have fallen, and inflation in general has eased. And the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion ruling on June 24 — the same week as Vega’s primary victory — also has energized Democrats.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll this week found that 71% of those voting for a Democratic candidate this year say their vote is a vote to “preserve access to abortion,” while just 15% say their vote is “not about abortion” at all. Conversely, only 25% of those voting for the Republican candidate say their vote is a vote to “limit access to abortion”; more than twice as many (61%) say that their vote is not about abortion.

A voter holding her child casts her ballot at a polling location.
A voter casts her ballot during the midterm primary election on June 21 in Alexandria, Va. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Democratic data consultant Tom Bonier wrote in the New York Times last weekend that because of the Supreme Court’s decision ending the national right to abortion, “women are registering to vote in numbers I never witnessed before.” He pointed to Kansas, a conservative state where a ballot measure to end the right an abortion under state law was defeated 59% to 41% in early August.

After the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, women in Kansas outnumbered men among new voter registrations by 40%, Bonier said. Other states have also shown big increases in women registering to vote, he wrote.

Experts still say Republicans are favored to win control of the House but by a narrower margin than had been expected. Spanberger’s seat is one that looked much more vulnerable in the face of a Republican wave. When Vega won the GOP primary, the Cook Political Report rated the race as a toss-up.

Now, Spanberger looks to have a slight edge. She is a formidable politician and legislator, a 43-year-old former CIA officer and mother of three who has twice defeated Republicans in close races over the past few years.

But Spanberger is also in a new district. The new Seventh Congressional District was created during the 2021 redistricting process. Only about a quarter of the old district was included in the new one, which now includes exurban Woodbridge, 30 miles south of D.C., and stretches farther south to Fredericksburg, and then west past Culpeper, a roughly two-hour trip southwest of the city.

Spanberger, as a result, has had to introduce herself to quite a few new voters.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger and a woman leaning on a vehicle.
Spanberger with a resident of Fredericksburg, Va., on Aug. 23. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Additionally, the Seventh District is the third-most Hispanic in the state — at 17% of the population — and Vega is the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador. She’s still a police officer, and she’s had a few years in government as a county supervisor in Prince William County. She’s become a regular guest on Fox News, along with another young Latina running for Congress in south Texas, Mayra Flores.

Vega and Flores are poised to become national political stars because they can claim to represent a trend of Hispanic voters moving away from the Democratic Party and toward the GOP. Many Latinos have moved right in recent years, joining evangelical Christian churches in droves and telling pollsters that they prefer the GOP when it comes to economic policy.

Many Latinos have also reacted negatively to calls to “defund the police” by some Democrats in recent years. On this issue, Spanberger has been outspoken, criticizing Democrats who used the “defund the police” slogan, and says she doesn’t regret taking on those in her own party.

“That’s something that I stand by,” she told Yahoo News. “When we’re talking about what needs to happen in communities … using just bumper sticker slogans, it’s reductive. It’s not effective. People don’t understand what you’re for or why you’re doing it.”

And not all of the structural changes to the district are bad for Spanberger. The new district has more Democratic voters than the old one. Youngkin won voters in the new district by 5 points a year ago, whereas he won Spanberger’s old district by 10 points, according to the Virginia Political Access Project.

The new district has voted for Democrats in several recent elections as well.

A smiling Rep. Abigail Spanberger turns to look back as she sits in an excavator simulator machine.
Spanberger testing an excavator simulator machine at the Fredericksburg Center for Advanced Technology on Tuesday. (Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

Vega’s comments on abortion are not the only ones that Spanberger is highlighting to voters. The Democrat is also pointing out that Vega recently said that she would favor shutting down the federal government to stymie the Biden administration. That’s not likely to be a popular position in a congressional district filled with federal employees.

Kyle Kondik, who oversees election forecasts at the UVA Center for Politics, told Yahoo News that the Spanberger vs. Vega race could be an early indicator of how the election is going to go nationally on Nov. 8. If Spanberger wins but it’s close, Democrats are still likely to lose control of the House of Representatives. If she wins easily, that could signal a really significant backlash effect from the Supreme Court abortion ruling.

If Spanberger loses, however, it would indicate that the Republican gains will be more sweeping than is now generally assumed.

“Spanberger has been one of the more impressive members of the 2018 class,” Kondik said. “The fact that it’s a better district than before, the environment isn’t as daunting and that she has something to use against her opponent on one of the most salient issues of the day probably gives her an edge.”