Spanberger-Vega congressional contest in Virginia is close – and closely watched

The political battle for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District is one of the most closely watched and costly U.S. House races in the country.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic centrist and former CIA officer, is seeking a third term. Spanberger and members of her party are facing fierce political headwinds from issues including inflation and high gas prices.

Her opponent, Yesli Vega, is a Republican with a law enforcement background and compelling life story, who is trying to become Virginia’s first Latina elected to Congress.

The race has drawn national attention, in part because the district isn’t far from Washington, and because the race could provide clues on election night about how the two parties will do overall.

Kyle Kondik, with Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, believes Spanberger still has a slight edge in the race.

“But I tell you what — I think if Spanberger were to lose, that probably would be indicative of Republicans having a pretty decent night in the House,” Kondik said.

More than $20 million has been spent on the race, according to OpenSecrets, which estimates campaign spending.

Both women have law enforcement experience.

Spanberger was an investigator with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and was an early critic of calls to defund the police, which Republicans have sought to tie to Democrats, though it was opposed by Democratic House leadership.

Vega became a member of the Alexandria Police Department more than a decade ago and has said her career was inspired by the fact that her brother was shot and wounded by members of the gang MS-13.

She is the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador and has worked as an auxiliary officer with the Prince William County Sheriff’s Office.

Vega, 37, became a member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors in 2020. During her tenure she has repeatedly voted against proposed county budgets because of tax increases.

During her campaign appearances, she has echoed the education themes of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, suggesting Democrats are trying to take too much control of what’s happening in the classroom.

“We started a movement here in the commonwealth of Virginia last year, where we said that parents absolutely matter,” she told a crowd at a rally in Prince William County.

Vega has also sought to tie Spanberger to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and what she considers wasteful spending by Democrats. Ads on Vega’s behalf have accused her opponent of being out for herself, rather than the people she represents.

Spanberger, 43, has been among the few Democrats who have criticized Pelosi, suggesting that the party needs new and younger leadership.

But in an interview, she also cited many of the same legislative accomplishments other Democrats have, including passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act that was passed this summer.

“What people expect in their legislators is someone who’s actually focused on addressing a problem,” she said, pointing out that she sponsored legislation passed by the House that seeks to lower food and fuel costs.

During the campaign, Spanberger urged U.S. Senate leaders to take up the legislation.

Spanberger has also stressed the issue of abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. Her campaign has repeatedly pointed to a statement Vega made in response to someone on the campaign trail, suggesting it’s possible someone who is raped is less likely to get pregnant.

Vega, a strong abortion rights opponent, has distanced herself from the comment and has said she supports abortion exceptions for the life of the mother, rape and incest.

Vega’s campaign did not respond to requests from WTOP for an interview.

On the stump, she has said on issues like the economy and crime she would “do the complete opposite” of what Spanberger has been doing while in office.

A new district

Both candidates are seeking votes in a district that was redrawn last year.

It now includes a large share of Prince William County, stretching to Fredericksburg, as well as more rural areas in the east and west, including Culpeper. The district no longer includes the large swaths of suburban areas outside of Richmond.

Spanberger was swept in with many Democrats in the 2018 midterms, when they captured 40 House seats while former President Donald Trump was in office.

Now, she and Democrats are vulnerable, with Republicans only needing five sets to retake the House.

Trump recently endorsed Vega, but she hasn’t sought to highlight his support. She has said she believes the 2020 presidential election was “interfered with,” but not said it was stolen, as Trump has maintained.

Spanberger, like many other Democrats, has kept her political distance from President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings remain low.

The two congressional candidates disagree on virtually all major issues and present a clear choice to voters in the 7th District.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report recently declared the race a tossup.

Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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