NORFOLK, Va. — Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger were part of a historic wave of women who helped Democrats retake the U.S. House in 2018. And when they got to Washington, both established themselves as party moderates willing to work with Republicans on legislation.
But their reelection bids are far from guaranteed. They’re wooing voters in Republican-drawn districts that supported Donald Trump, a president they voted to impeach.
Both races are a top priority for Democrats and are among the country’s more competitive contests this year. While the congresswomen may be lesser known than more liberal colleagues, such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they’re testing the reach of the Democratic Party’s center. The Cook Political Report rates Luria’s 2nd District and Spanberger’s 7th District — both of which flipped from red to blue two years ago — as “lean Democratic.”
“If they were to lose, it would be a sign that 2018 was an aberration and that, fundamentally, these districts still have more Republican DNA,” said David Wasserman, the U.S. House editor for the report.
Several million dollars have poured into the campaigns, including from outside interest groups, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Luria, a former Navy commander, and Spanberger, a former CIA operations officer, are part of a group of first-term congresswomen whose national security experience helped build support for impeachment. Nonetheless, both stress their commitment to other issues that are crucial to voters, including the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Luria said she doesn’t think impeachment is going to be “a deciding issue.”
“Not for any swing voters who are worried about health care, the economy or the environment,” she said.
A newly elected congresswoman in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region will sit on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.
But their Republican opponents say the Democrats are chained to a party that’s out of sync with constituents.
Those constituents are “not seeing moderation,” said Nick Freitas, a former U.S. Army Green Beret and state lawmaker who is challenging Spanberger in Richmond’s suburbs. “They’re seeing extreme responses.”
Freitas said voters don’t want “government takeovers” for health care and “economic shutdowns” for the pandemic.
Luria’s 2nd District includes suburban Virginia Beach, the world’s biggest Navy base and a large veteran population. Her 20 years in the Navy included being second in command of a guided missile cruiser.
During her time in Congress, Luria has grilled military commanders over the readiness of aircraft carriers. And President Trump signed into law her bipartisan legislation to provide tax relief to Gold Star families.
More recently, Luria worked to get more funding for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. And she said she’s focused on securing federal loans for small businesses hard hit by the pandemic.
But Republican challenger Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, said Luria is no stranger to sowing division. He said she “disgracefully used her uniform as a sort of a justification to launch an empty impeachment.”
“People presume that someone must be moderate because they have a national security background,” Taylor said. “And that’s just not been the case. When it comes to the hard stuff, there’s been no bipartisanship.”
Taylor wants rematch for U.S. House seat held by Luria.
Taylor said Luria failed to take enough of a stand against violence during protests against police brutality. And he said Luria should have spoken out against coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses, which Taylor said were too strict.
Taylor served in Congress for one term before losing to Luria by roughly 6,000 votes in 2018. That year, some of his campaign staffers were accused of forging signatures to place a third-party “spoiler” candidate on the ballot. Two staffers have pleaded guilty and a third was charged last month. Taylor has denied knowing of any wrongdoing or involvement in any illegal activity.
Paul DeCamillis, who normally votes Republican, said he is supporting Taylor and Trump in November. DeCamillis, 54, a valve company sales representative who lives in Virginia Beach, said Luria went too far with impeachment on charges that he did not think were legitimate.
However, Jim Yano, 67, a retired Virginia Beach teacher who votes Democratic, said he thinks Luria treated the impeachment carefully and is not bonded to Democratic leadership but “an independent thinker who takes her time to reason through issues.”
Spanberger’s 7th District stretches from the suburbs west of Richmond to the exurbs of Washington. She spent nearly a decade with the CIA, working on counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation cases.
She did not support Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker. And Trump signed into law her bipartisan legislation to defend the nation’s 5G telecommunications network from foreign threats.
This cycle, 121 Republicans and 60 Democrats with military backgrounds are vying for seats in the House and Senate.
Spanberger said she’s working on issues such as making prescription drugs more affordable. And she said she’ll attract more swing voters because of “the uneasiness that we feel as American people, not knowing when we may return to some level of normalcy.”
“It’s very tangible for people who’ve lost their jobs,” she said. “I’ve been very vocal on the fact that we need to move forward and create a bipartisan plan for relief.”
But it likely won’t be enough for Letitia Smyth, 66, a real estate agent who has voted for Republicans and Democrats in the past. She said she’s leaning toward Freitas for various reasons, including his stance against abortion.
“She is more conservative than a lot of them as far as the Democrats go,” Smyth said of Spanberger. “But she is not pro-life.”