STAFFORD, Va. (AP) — While campaigning recently for Democrat Abigail Spanberger in northern Virginia’s competitive 7th Congressional District, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine made the case that the former CIA officer and two-term incumbent had carved out a dramatically outsized influence during her relatively short tenure.
He also had a warning for the few dozen supporters gathered outside a polling place about an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital: Should either chamber flip in this year’s midterm elections, Republicans would “throw an emergency brake” on President Joe Biden’s administration.
On that point, Spanberger's Republican challenger, Yesli Vega, wholeheartedly agrees.
“The madness, the chaos — it ends in 11 days," Vega said at a rally last week at the same government center, her voice reaching a near-shout as she rallied an energetic lunchtime crowd with a call-and-response style message.
“We have a country to take back," she said.
The race, featuring two women with law enforcement backgrounds — one a centrist Democrat and a star in her state party, the other a local elected official seeking to become Virginia's first Latina member of Congress — appears to be a nail-biter in the final stretch. The contest that could help determine party control of the House is among the country’s most expensive and competitive, with each campaign asserting it has the momentum heading into Election Day.
Spanberger, who has also worked for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, has represented Virginia's 7th District since she flipped the GOP-held seat in 2018 as part of a Democratic wave that retook control of the U.S. House. But the district was overhauled during last year's redistricting, meaning she's having to introduce herself to new would-be constituents.
Instead of sprawling north to south across central Virginia, including parts of the Richmond suburbs, it shifted north and is more compactly centered around the Interstate 95 corridor in exurban Washington and rural communities to the east and west.
Neither candidate lives in the district, which tilts slightly Democratic but would have swung Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's way in last year's election, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently moved its assessment of the race from Democrat-leaning to toss-up territory.
The race is one of the nation's most expensive with over $20 million in independent expenditures, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks campaign spending.
Vega, 37, is a former police officer, military spouse and county supervisor in Prince William County, which makes up the largest share of the redrawn district. She co-chaired Youngkin's Latino voter coalition last year.
She has relentlessly sought to tie Spanberger to Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though Spanberger has been critical of Pelosi.
A daughter of immigrants from El Salvador, Vega speaks from personal experience about the effects of crime, recounting how her brother was shot by gang members, which inspired her to join law enforcement. She frequently sounds themes about education and parental rights in an echo of Youngkin's winning campaign, remarks that typically draw large cheers.
“I never have, and I never will, co-parent with the federal government," she said at a Fredericksburg rally.
Spanberger, 43, has run as a bipartisan consensus builder, touting endorsements from a Republican police chief, former Republican congressman and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She's also emphasized her office's constituent services and legislative priorities, including a stock trading ban for members of Congress.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get a better candidate,” said 7th District voter Barbara Cannon, a retiree and self-described lifelong Democrat who attended the Spanberger-Kaine rally.
In an interview, Spanberger expressed confidence in her own reelection odds but declined to speculate on whether Democrats would maintain House control. She raised her experience serving on the House Agriculture Committee and also sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She said she was proud to have voted for key pieces of the Biden agenda, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill and Inflation Reduction Act.
“She has a record of extreme rhetoric, and she has no plan for anything,” Spanberger said of Vega in the interview.
Vega has criticized the news media, saying reporters are biased in Democrats’ favor. Her campaign did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.
Spanberger and outside groups backing her have sought to make abortion a key issue since the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade, ending constitutional protections for abortion and allowing states to ban the procedure.
They have highlighted audio in which Vega indulged the notion that pregnancy could be less likely in cases of rape. Vega told reporters last week that she made the remarks to an operative working on Spanberger's behalf and they have been mischaracterized in TV ads. Her campaign has at various points described her as “100% in support of life," declined to answer questions about abortion restrictions, or — as spokesperson Sean Brown did this week — said she supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life.
Spanberger has touted her vote to codify the Roe decision. Asked if she supports any restrictions on abortion, Spanberger responded: “It is not in any way appropriate for a federal legislator to mandate a pregnancy.”
Dixie Mauck, a retired teacher, grandmother of eight and Vega supporter who said she thought the Republican exuded “family values,” said she doubts the issue of abortion will decide the race.
“I think a lot of the Democrats are using that as an issue because they don’t really have anything else to brag about," said Mauck, who described being deeply worried about the direction of the country — especially schools and the economy.
Vega has opposed the Inflation Reduction Act and blames Biden and congressional Democrats for historic inflation. Spanberger said inflation has a number of root causes Congress is working to address, ranging from supply chain disruptions to truck driver shortages.
The candidates, who did not meet for a debate and have found virtually no common ground on issues, have both distanced themselves somewhat from unpopular presidents. Despite the district’s proximity to Washington, Spanberger said she had no plans to campaign with Biden. Vega, meanwhile, downplayed an endorsement from former President Donald Trump last week.
State Sen. Richard Stuart, who represents portions of the 7th District and has stumped with Vega, called her a dynamic candidate and hard worker who has impressed voters and more effectively addressed crime and economic issues.
While calling Spanberger “a very tough candidate,” he predicted Vega would win.
His Democratic colleague Scott Surovell, who also represents part of the 7th and has campaigned with Spanberger, said she has been well-received in the new district, which has high concentrations of federal workers. Surovell said Vega’s been too focused on “Pelosi-bashing," adding he was stunned when she indicated a willingness to shut down the federal government to curtail Biden’s agenda.
“I think Abigail’s going to be fine on Election Day,” he said.
This story has been updated to correct that a Spanberger endorsement came from a Republican police chief, not a sheriff.