Last month, Congressional candidate Abigail Spanberger finally got her chance to face off against opponent Rep. Dave Brat in the only in-person debate between them of the all-important midterm elections. Over the course of the 90-minute event, the candidates sparred on everything from healthcare to stagnant wages. Throughout, Brat, a Tea Party Republican endorsed by Trump in Virginia's 7th District, brought up House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi more than 20 times; at one point he referred to Spanberger as a blank check on "the Nancy Pelosi liberal agenda."
In a now viral clip, Spanberger offers a stunning rejection of Brat's attempt to box her in: "I am not Nancy Pelosi, and I am not President Barack Obama," she says, her voice clear as a bell. "I am a woman who grew up in Henrico County, who grew up in this community, who was taught service, hard work, and a commitment to the belief that the American people can be anything, and we will lead the world in this way. And that's who I am...and I ask for your vote on November 6th. Abigail Spanberger is my name!"
That distinction is important for Spanberger to make just a few days ahead of the pivotal midterm elections, as she's running in a dead heat against Brat to represent a district that has been held by Republicans for almost 50 years, and which Trump won by 7 points in 2016. (For the record, Spanberger has said that she wouldn't vote for Pelosi to remain the House Democrats' leader.) Stretching from the rural farmland outside of Culpeper in the north to the suburbs south of Richmond, the 7th District, for the first time in recent history, has a fighting chance of turning blue as Democrats attempt to flip the House. It's also never been represented by a woman.
"Our district is a 50-50 district, so it's incredibly important that we have a representative who is focused on bringing people together and creating long-lasting legislation," Spanberger tells Refinery29. "Right now, we're on this teeter-totter where we make progress when one party has all the control, and I don't think that's healthy for our democracy."
Ahead, in a phone interview, Spanberger tells us more about her district, her campaign strategy, and why she thinks young people will turn out to vote.
Your background is in law enforcement and the CIA. What motivated you to run for office?
"Where we are as a country, we need people who are focused on problem-solving and really trying to address the needs of people throughout our communities. There's just a desire to move the country to a better place and to focus on productive, real, earnest governance and electing legislators who want to do their job and work hard to create legislation thats impactful."
Brat was once caught on tape saying to a group of constituents, "Since Obamacare and these issues have come up, the women are in my grill no matter where I go." You've made healthcare one of the central issues in your race, as it is in so many races across the country. Why is that?
"It's the number-one issue people across the district are focused on. My focus is on ensuring people have affordable, quality healthcare. People shouldn't have to choose between paying for their prescription drugs and putting food on the table. Closing hospitals is a concern, too, particularly in the rural parts of our district. People's concerns [about healthcare] are really the same, but they manifest in slightly different ways. In the suburbs, people are worried about the costs of their prescription drugs; in the rural areas people are worried about the costs of their prescription drugs and the closing of hospitals."
How would you characterize your campaign strategy compared to Brat's? He reportedly stopped holding town halls after being heckled about wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act in May 2017.
"When I got into this race, my priority was to get out and meet as many people as possible. I felt there was a need for change. Just because it's always been Republican, doesn't mean it has to stay represented by a Republican. I started having meet-and-greets in living and dining rooms, open meetings for people to get engaged; that's really been the successful part of our strategy. The incumbent won't hold town halls or engage with voters. A representative should have hard conversations with people even if they disagree."
In a year when more Democratic candidates have spoken in favor of abolishing ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), you don't support that issue and have come out with a more centrist, border-security message. What's your overall strategy on immigration?
"I have yet to meet a Democrat who doesn't want a secure border. My experience with the CIA should be additional validation that I am committed to keeping this country safe. I worked to keep this country safe from terrorist threats. When we're talking about immigration and border security, the issues get conflated in an ineffective way. We need to know who and what is coming over, but it's also about making smart choices. Building a giant wall that people can climb over and under [like my opponent wants to do] is a silly waste of money. Like healthcare, immigration has become a political punching bag. Republicans want to use the issue to stoke fear and create divisions. We need comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate previously passed a good bill, but the Speaker of the House wouldn't pick it up. We need to start over."
What do you think of Trump's recent promise to end birthright citizenship — right before an important election he seems anxious about losing?
"This is one more example of the president being really ill-informed on issues that are incredibly important to people in this country and working to create anger and division within our communities. ... For him to tweet that in any way he can summarily change one of the basic tenets of our country and who we are speaks to his lack of leadership. If he wanted to raise the notion of birthright citizenship...it's within the realm of possibility for him to raise as an issue. As he so often does, he recklessly misinforms people. And now, it's become a distraction."
"Particularly women have come up to me and said, I'm here because my daughter or my son has come to meet you — that has happened multiple times. ... It's so incredibly important that younger people are told that people in politics care about their opinion, and their opinion is validated. I think the numbers are going to be pretty good. According to the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), turnout among young people was way up in 2017. That makes me feel enthusiastic. And not just among young people: We were just in Orange County, where many people told me they had never been at a political event before mine. I met a woman who was 99 years old and had only voted once; for me in the primary. It's very common at our events for people to say, 'I've never been at a political event before, but here I am.'"
What does it mean to you that a district like the 7th is competitive for a Democrat for the first time in 50 years?
"We have a strong campaign, and we are talking about issues that are important to voters, things that are really important to people in the district. People here locally want a representative who's focused on their needs. I'm talking about restoring civility to Washington and bipartisanship, and about how to get things done, and how as a country we can come back together and move forward.
"I am running the campaign that I would want to vote for. That is at the core of how I've made choices along the way — who I am as a voter, informed by my experience in the CIA and in public service. The way we make the best progress in a correctly functioning two-party system is when we have the push and pull of different ideas.
"People across our district have recognized that we can't govern on autopilot, that our democracy is as strong as the compilation of citizens who participate. It's important and necessary for people to get involved."