Virginias 7th Congressional District is a long, skinny puzzle piece made up of suburban and rural enclaves to the west of Richmond and Fredericksburg. Its here that political analysts say were seeing one of the nations closest election races taking shape.
Six years ago, Dave Brat served up a shocking victory over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the 2014 Republican primary for the district. Riding a wave of tea party energy, Brat stunned the GOP establishment with the win. Four years later, Brat would experience an upset of his own when Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger beat him by two points in a midterm rebuke of President Donald Trump in 2018.
But times are constantly changing, and Spanberger may have trouble winning reelection against Del. Nick Freitas, a Republican challenger from Culpeper, in a district that still leans red.
This may be one of the most closely contested races in the entire country, says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. First-term incumbents are generally more vulnerable than people who serve for longer periods of time, so they have to work particularly aggressively to retain that seat in the first reelection. The Republicans have a stronger candidate [than Brat] this time around, and one who showed a great ability to raise money, which is a key challenge in congressional elections.
With Election Day only a month away, Spanberger and Freitas are working to connect with voters at a time when the pandemic has turned traditional campaigning on its head, and the race between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden and Trumps recent COVID-19 diagnosis is dominating the news cycle.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, right, talks to a voter at the county registrars office last month. Photo by Ash Daniel
Standing outside Chesterfields Office of the General Registrar two weeks ago as dozens of voters lined the sidewalk in masks, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger said running for office during the pandemic has brought many changes compared to 2018.
Everything about campaigning is different, said Spanberger, noting that her campaign has done literature drops and contactless canvassing in addition to social media and TV ads. Weve really worked to adapt to keep people safe.
Two years ago, Spanberger, who lives in Glen Allen, marshalled the forces of an extensive grassroots campaign to knock on doors, send mailers and tap into widespread anti-Trump sentiment to defeat a candidate who closely aligned himself with the president. On the heels of the #MeToo movement and Trumps election, which spurred a wave of female candidates to run for public office, Spanberger was propelled to victory by winning the suburbs of Chesterfield and Henrico by large margins.
It was almost a social movement. She generated thousands of volunteers, veteran political analyst Bob Holsworth says of Spanbergers 2018 campaign. Well have to see whether she can duplicate that same level of effort on social media, on television, that she was able to generate with a grassroots campaign in 2018.
Holsworth lauds Spanberger as a candidate, noting the amount of time shes spent in the district and her work to address issues of importance to the rural parts of the 7th, such as broadband internet and health care access. Still, Holsworth says it will be a competitive race.
By and large, its a tough district for Democrats, Holsworth says. One advantage that she does have is shes from the most populous part of the district. Shes now pretty well-known in Henrico and Chesterfield, whereas Freitas has had to introduce himself to voters in the most populous part of the district.
Farnsworth agrees that Spanbergers profile fit the district two years ago, as shes a moderate Democrat which helps in a district that still leans red with a national security background; Spanberger is a former CIA officer.
Spanberger was one of the few Democratic candidates who could have prevailed in that district as currently drawn, he says.
During her time in office, Spanberger said shes proudest of helping people in need through constituent services and legislation that addresses human and narco-trafficking, as well as 5G technology and infrastructure issues. Moving forward, she said she wants to continue working to lower prescription drug costs and protect health care. Both Spanberger and her campaign have stressed that she is bipartisan; two weeks ago, the nonprofit Common Ground Committee named her the highest-ranking Democrat among U.S. House Members, U.S. Senators and U.S. governors who seeks points of agreement and solutions on social and political issues through listening and productive conversation.
By all measures, shes a moderate Democrat. Shes not a card-carrying member of the progressive wing of the Democratic caucus in the House, says Christopher Newport University political science professor Quentin Kidd, mentioning her votes on the budget and fiscal issues. I think she fits the district really well for those reasons.
As an extension of that, Spanberger hasnt made Trump a focal point of her campaign in a district that he won four years ago with 51% of the vote.
Trump does relatively well in this district, and that is the problem that she faces, Holsworth says. Youre not seeing Spanberger link Freitas to Trump, where in other parts of Virginia that would be the campaign.
A U.S. Army veteran and former Green Beret, Freitas has served in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2015. After narrowly losing a bid to become the Republican nominee to run against U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018, Freitas announced his candidacy for Virginias 7th Congressional District last December.
Described by the Associated Press as having a conservative voting record and libertarian streak in the General Assembly, Freitas appears to have the backing of both wings of the Republican Party; both Brat and Cantor a mainstream Republican who served in Congress from 2001 to 2014 have announced their support for Freitas.
On paper hes a really good candidate, Kidd says. Nick Freitas is a much better candidate [than Brat] in the sense that hes able to fold easily into the enthusiasm thats there for Donald Trump among Republicans.
Where Brat found himself in the crosshairs of liberal protestors and had largely stopped attending open public events near the end of his 2018 campaign, Freitas has frequently held and attended political events, and his politics align more naturally with Trumps. For instance, though Brat supported Trumps 2016 bid, the former economics professor was also virulently anti-tariff, whereas Trump has imposed numerous tariffs on other countries as part of his America First economic policy.
At a breakfast meeting of the Henrico County Republican Committee in Glen Allen on Saturday morning, Freitas made little mention of Trump, painting this years elections both presidential and congressional as a fight for countrys founding political ideals. Speaking in broad, philosophical terms, he argued that Spanberger and the Democratic Party see government as the solution to what ails the country.
Del. Nick Freitas, left, speaks to attendees at a Henrico Republican Committee breakfast on Saturday morning. Photo by Ash Daniel
Her primary way to solve problems is more government power, Im going to take your money, Im going to regulate your life more, and then the government is going to do a better job of taking care of you, he told those in attendance. The biggest problem that I have with it is what it teaches people to believe about themselves. They are robbing people of the most beautiful thing that we have in this country, and that is the concept of freedom and self-determination.
He made a similar argument when reached by phone two weeks ago. In that interview, Freitas called himself a nonpartisan problem solver and said hes proudest of working on legislation in the General Assembly that expanded career technical education opportunities, apprenticeship programs and promoted government transparency. Freitas said he decided to run because he didnt like the direction Spanberger was taking in Congress.
Her voting record is incredibly partisan, and it turns out that her solution to almost every problem is more government power. Its more taxes, more regulation, he said.
If elected, Freitas said he wants to get rid of tax and regulatory burdens on businesses and enact transparency reforms. Asked about the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare he said he wants to repeal it and create a new system for health insurance while providing a stopgap measure to provide coverage for people with preexisting conditions. Though Freitas campaign hasnt elaborated on what he wants to see Obamacare replaced with, he tweeted on Sept. 4 that he wants a health care system that would decrease costs, increase accessibility, and cut the red tape.
Last month, PolitiFact rated the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claim that Freitas supported a plan letting insurance companies deny coverage for preexisting conditions like asthma or diabetes as True, citing a 2014 Facebook post and his 2018 support of expanding health policies that dont comply with Obamacare and often dont cover preexisting conditions. In return, Freitas called the PolitiFact rating false and said his Facebook post was too vague to be interpreted that way.
As the weather gets cooler and coronavirus cases likely rise, Holsworth says health care will continue to be a critical issue in this campaign.
Spanberger is trying to put [Freitas] on the defensive by explaining certain votes that hes taken, Holsworth says.
Asked about Trump, Freitas said he endorses the presidents policies, including tax and criminal justice reforms enacted by his administration; on Sept. 25, Freitas spoke at Trumps campaign rally at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.
Freitas has defended the Trump administrations response to a pandemic that has killed more than 209,000 people as of Monday. A day after Trump was hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19, Freitas, who wore a mask while speaking to constituents one-on-one during the GOP breakfast in Henrico, said the deployment of medical resources and CDC guidance has largely been effective in keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed. While speaking at the breakfast meeting, however, he made no direct mention of the pandemic, or Trumps hospitalization.
Obviously, were praying for the president and the first lady just as we are the governor and the first lady here in Virginia, Freitas told a reporter afterward. (Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and first lady Pamela Northam tested positive on Sept. 24.)
As for Trumps refusal to commit to leaving office if he loses the election, Freitas told the Observer, I think this president is always going to encourage and accept a peaceful transfer of power.
In early August, Freitas campaign became a subject of controversy for selling face masks that read COVID-19, MADE IN CHINA. The nonprofit National Korean American Service & Education Consortium issued an open letter demanding that the campaign no longer sell the masks, saying they stoke anti-Asian racism. Freitas called the group hyper partisan, and said he has no problem with the Chinese people.
I dont think there was anything racist going on, he said. Its interesting that it has become impossible to criticize a dictatorial, communist government in China without people assuming that youre engaging in racism against the Chinese people.
Despite both campaigns best efforts, the top of the ticket still appears to be hogging the spotlight.
I think the challenge for both campaigns will be how to be heard over the presidential election, Farnsworth says. The Biden versus Trump matchup will draw the bulk of the public and media attention between now and November.
Farnsworth says there arent a lot of persuadable voters in the 7th, and that the winner may ultimately come down to party affiliation.
[The] presidential election is going to ramp up turnout on both sides, but the big unknown of 2020 is what the impact of COVID is going to be when it comes to voter turnout, Farnsworth says. Early indications are there is going to be a huge increase in absentee mail-in voting because of COVID, but will the total turnout rates be higher than they were four years ago? Maybe, maybe not.
Overall, Farnsworth says this is a strange moment to run a political campaign.
This is a terrible time to run for office, he says. All of the old rules, knocking on doors, having big public rallies everything that candidates do to build their public exposure is a potential risk right now. That makes running for office unusually difficult in 2020.
The rest is here:
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