Virginia’s 7th U.S. House District really was unwinnable, until it wasn’t.
In 2016, with Republican incumbent Dave Brat supporting the most toxic presidential candidate of my lifetime, Democratic challenger Eileen Bedell received only 42 percent of the votes to Brat’s 58 percent. That gaping 16-point margin was the closest in decades, achieved with no support to speak of from national Democrats.
But after the election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee must have been getting good information on the ground. Several organizations sprang up in the Richmond suburbs in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, grew to thousands of members in short order, and began coordinating activism ranging from postcard lobbying to attendance at town hall events, including Dave Brat’s. In May 2017, the national Democratic Committee added Virginia’s 7th to its list of U.S. congressional districts to target in 2018.
State elections that November suggested that this new optimism about the 7th was prescient: In a “blue wave” that gave Democrats 15 new seats in Virginia’s legislature and brought them within a single vote of controlling its House of Delegates, voters here in Chesterfield County – one of 10 localities in the 7th – supported a Democrat for governor for the first time since 1961 and ousted other state and local Republican incumbents.
Bedell, a local attorney who seemed comfortable on either side of the 7th District’s rural/suburban divide, was geared up to run again in 2017. But she eventually withdrew to avoid a nomination fight and threw her support behind former federal law enforcement officer and Henrico mother-of-three Abigail Spanberger. As early polls suggested the race could be close for the first time in memory, national media highlighted it to show the possibility of a Democratic midterm surge. The New York Times profiled our slice of the country this past August:
Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District runs from the exurbs of Washington to counties south of Richmond, roughly tracking the decisive battles of the Civil War where Ulysses S. Grant ultimately defeated Robert E. Lee. In some of the more rural stretches, Confederate flags still hang from front porches.
But far more common are the booming commercial and housing developments closer to Richmond that are eating into what was once a conservative redoubt. Two counties that hug the commonwealth’s capital are likely to determine the outcome: Henrico, where Ms. Spanberger lives and which increasingly leans Democratic, and Chesterfield, a onetime Republican stronghold that is showing signs of change.
Chesterfield decisive, despite drama
My family is among the 80,000 people Chesterfield has added to its population total since 2000. In the past two decades, the number of registered voters in the county also has increased from about 118,000 to more than 240,000. In a county that still raises more political contributions for Republican candidates, voting records show that my own suburban voting precinct* has shifted from slightly red to blue in national elections over the past six years:
- 2012: A slim majority of 1,320 voters in my precinct supported Republican House whip Eric Cantor. In the presidential race, 40 more people cast votes to put Barack Obama over the top here.
- 2014: Only 835 people voted in my precinct, supporting Brat by a slim majority. Earlier that year, Tea Party insurgent Brat had edged out establishment favorite Cantor in the Republican primary, beating him at my polling place by 114-103.
- 2016: Presidential-year turnout increased, with 1,503 people in my precinct casting votes for the Virginia 7th race. This time, a majority supported Democrat Bedell. As in 2012, about 40 more people cast votes for president here, supporting Hillary Clinton with 53 percent of the vote.
- 2018: Midterm turnout increased by about 70 percent, with 1,422 people casting votes at my precinct. Spanberger won handily here with 62 percent of the votes. (Primary turnout had been higher than in 2014 as well, but only slightly: 241 weighed in on the Democratic nomination contest.)
On November 6, Chesterfield as a whole handed Spanberger her victory in melodramatic fashion. As returns started to trickle in, Brat maintained a steady lead as the 7th’s other nine counties reported their tallies. But results from Chesterfield were delayed, in part because a court had ordered extended voting hours at two precincts that allegedly opened late or had persistently long lines. Republicans later noted that the precincts initially stayed closed despite the order and that other precinct problems plagued the County throughout the day.
Still, as midnight approached, and leading by about half a point with 98 percent of precincts reporting, Spanberger declared victory even though news outlets appeared to be waiting on the full results before calling the race in her favor. In the end, Spanberger won Chesterfield by nine points – the same result Brat had achieved in the county in 2014.
Brat conceded on November 7, attributing his loss in part to “millions and millions of dollars of money from around this country that poured into Virginia to attack my record.” But according to the most recent election spending reports, outside groups spent more attacking Spanberger ($3.6 million) than attacking Brat ($3.1 million). In all, outside groups favoring Brat spent $4.7 million; those favoring Spanberger spent $3.7 million.
Maybe Brat was referring to the 58 percent of Spanberger’s $5.9 million direct-contribution total from out-of-state donors, which was ahead of the 47-percent share of Brat’s $2.7 million that came from outside Virginia. It’s worth noting that a majority of both candidates’ donations came from outside the 7th District, with 73 percent for Spanberger and 60 percent for Brat. The Richmond-Petersburg metropolitan area was the largest geographic base for both candidates’ fundraising, with Washington D.C. in second place. The candidates’ donation totals had approximately equal proportions of small versus large donations.
The Pelosi problem
In a nod to the mixed composition of the district she was courting, Spanberger made a relatively early promise not to support former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lead a Democratic majority in 2019. That promise gave Spanberger a basis to rebut accusations during the campaign that she would effectively act as Pelosi’s puppet if elected. Wisely, the Representative-elect hasn’t backtracked on her position on the speakership since her November 6 victory. “I think it’s important we have new leadership leading a new conversation really committed to having an effective Congress that is working to solve problems,” she told WTVR.
But it’s not clear who Spanberger’s alternative would be. There are about 20 Democrats on record as saying they’ll oppose Pelosi for Speaker of the House. If Pelosi fails to get the 218 votes necessary to win the gavel, some say that result would create space that doesn’t currently exist for other candidates.
If Pelosi prevails, however, it’s reasonable to wonder about the intra-party dynamic between her and those who have publicly opposed her leadership. Pelosi is known on the Hill as a skilled negotiator who keeps her party in line when it counts. Based on Spanberger’s explicit and early opposition, would a resurgent Speaker Pelosi offer our Representative-elect more carrots, or sticks? We’ll see.
*According to the Virginia Public Access Project, 55 percent of registered voters assigned to my precinct are women, and almost half are in the 35-64 age demographic. As of 2017, only about a quarter of voters in my neighborhood have a record of “always” voting.