In a purple district in purple Virginia, soaring inflation takes the stage in the midterms battle

  • Rep. Abigail Spanberger faces a wide array of Republicans hoping to win Virginia’s 7th Congressional district.
  • Political experts predict Republicans will gain control of the House after the midterm elections.
  • Republicans have attacked Spanberger and Democrats over the economy and rising inflation.

At a virtual town hall Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., hosted last month, the first question was about how to get inflation under control.

“So the issue of inflation sir, you called it a silent tax, and I agree with you completely—it is. The impact of inflation is one that is felt by people across our districts and across the country,” Spanberger responded.  

The National Republican Congressional Committee pounced.

“Abigail Spanberger said it herself: She supported hiking taxes on Virginians by supporting Biden’s reckless spending sprees,” NRCC Spokeswoman Camille Gallo said in a statement the next day.

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The back-and-forth over inflation underscores the aggressive battle over Virginia’s 7th Congressional District and the fight for congressional control in the midterm elections.

Republicans need a net gain of just five seats in the House to take back control from Democrats’ razor-thin majority. And it could all come down to a topic that has often felled candidates on the left and the right: the economy.

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“It (the district) gave Biden 52% of the vote in 2020 and that's exactly what it gave [Glenn] Youngkin last year in the governor’s race,” said J.  Miles Coleman, an associate editor at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"This is basically the district that is the bellwether."

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., left, speaks during a Chamber RVA-sponsored candidate forum with Republican challenger Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 20.

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The 7th district leans Democratic according to experts, but Spanberger and Democrats are facing an uphill battle given President Joe Biden’s abysmal polling numbers, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and escalating prices. 

Historical trends show that midterm elections tend to be brutal for the party that holds the White House. Former Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all suffered midterm losses in 2006, 2010 and 2018, respectively. It was during the blue wave midterms that Spanberger was first elected to office.

A moderate Democrat elected to office in 2018 and reelected in 2020, Spanberger faces a vast field of Republican candidates hoping to oust her from office.

Inflation isn't on her side.

From January 2021 to January 2022 the consumer price index, which measures inflation, rose 7.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's the highest 12-month increase since the 12-month period ending in Feb. 1982. Gas prices increased over 40% over the last year and food prices increased by 6.4%

Recent RealClearPolitics presidential polls show Biden with a 40.7% average approval number and a 54.2% average disapproval rating.  

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Republicans have been quick to point out the foreboding poll numbers.

“I think voters are really viewing Democrats as incompetent right now and unable to solve the issues that are most affecting them," Gallo said in an interview with USA TODAY. "And I think we have a strong message of wanting to get inflation down, fix the economy, fix the border crisis, lower gas prices and lower the violent crime rate.”

Bob Martin, chairman of the Spotsylvania County Democratic Committee, said voters may not be thrilled with Democrats, but he doesn't think they've given up on the party. 

"We are trying to find solutions instead of just sitting in our chairs and ranting and raving," said Martin. 

Centrists and progressive Democrats have struggled over what interests to push during the midterm elections. 

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Spanberger has consistently pushed Democrats to focus more on the everyday policies that impact voters and less on progressive policies such as the "defund the police" movement. 

"The number one concern I think that people brought to me in my race that I barely re-won was defunding the police," she said in audio leaked to the Washington Post in 2020. 

"We need to get back to the basics that brought us across the finish line in 2018," Spanberger added. 

Tonya James, chair of the Prince William County Democratic Committee, said she's appreciated how Spanberger talks about these issues in a nuanced way. 

"I don't think it has to be either or just because of the makeup of the [7th] district," said James, "because we are a big tent and we do care about every voice in the party."

"It's just about making sure we're meeting voters where they're at and we're talking to them about these issues instead of being dismissive." 

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Rep. Abigail Spanberger (C) (D-VA) and Rep. Elaine Luria (R) (D-VA) are trailed by reporters after leaving a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol where formal impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump were announced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Democrats struggle to tamp down inflation

Tony DeTora, Stafford County GOP chairman, said rising gas and food prices have especially hurt residents who are still struggling in the midst of a pandemic.

“There's a lot of people in Stafford County that had a lot of problems because of COVID. They couldn't work. And then you put this on top of that after two years,” DeTora said. "They don't have any margin left."

In June 2019 the unemployment rate in Stafford was 2.9%; the unemployment rate jumped nearly five percentage points to 7.8% in June 2020, according to the BLS. In Virginia, the unemployment rate was 3.2% in December 2021 and 5.6% in December 2020,  according to the BLS.

Similarly, Gail Barber, a caretaker and volunteer with Koch network Americans For Prosperity group, said grocery items in Orange County, Virginia have shot up.

“I find that in the grocery store some things are double, some things are 50% more. Gasoline is definitely 50% more, and these are the things that the average citizen has to deal with,” said Barber.

Food prices increased 6.7% over the past year in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria area, which includes cities that border Orange County, according to a report from the BLS released in January. 

The increase is the highest 12-month rise since May 2004. Prices for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs, increased 9.5% over the past year. 

Energy prices increased 24.7% since January 2021, mostly due to gas prices, which increased  38.8%. 

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Spanberger continues to champion the sweeping $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law that repairs the nation's aging roads and bridges as an example of helping the American public. Biden signed the legislation into law in November of last year, touting the bill as the largest investment in the country’s infrastructure in decades. 

“This bill actually included my legislation that would help recruit and retain truck drivers, because we do know that there's a driver shortage,” Spanberger told USA TODAY. “And we have to get at some of the challenges in our supply chains, including the actual shipping and movement of goods.”

Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega, one of the 12 Republicans running for the district, said if elected she will focus on bringing down inflation, stopping "reckless spending" and alleviating tax burdens for Virginians. Top Republican challengers in the race also include state Sen. Bryce Reeves and Derrick Anderson, a former Special Forces Green Beret.

"When you are limited with a budget, you're going to make that go a long way," Vega said. "But this idea of continuing to print money as if it were Monopoly money and spending, spending, spending is not the solution." 

Vega, like other Republicans, criticized Spanberger for supporting the Biden administration.

“She's voted with this administration, with the president and with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time, so now it's a little too late. When you had the opportunity to actually do something and alleviate the burden, you didn't do anything,” Vega said.

Jacob Fish, deputy state director for the Americans For Prosperity in Virginia, criticized Spanberger for supporting policies that he says will hurt everyday Virginians.

“She went ahead not only voted for the American Rescue Plan, but also went ahead and also voted for the Build Back Better [Act] that luckily was able to be stalled in the Senate,” said Fish “But she was pushing for policies that we knew were going to continue to raise inflation.” 

Republican lawmakers in Congress, all of whom voted against the American Rescue Plan, argued the legislation was too expensive. The bill flooded the economy with government money and increased inflation as a result, the GOP has said. 

Americans For Prosperity released a six-figure ad campaign last month targeting 13 Congressional lawmakers, including Spanberger, who voted for the American Rescue Plan. The ad blames the lawmakers for the increase in prices for Americans. 

“If you effectively didn't get a seven and a half percent increase over the last year, you're basically making less money than you did before,” said Fish. “And a lot of that is based upon Washington policies like the American Rescue Plan, where they continue to throw money at a problem that wasn't necessary and is now hurting everyday average Virginians.”

However, economists say the pandemic and its disruption of the global supply chain have also contributed to inflation. 

Can Spanberger win?

A former CIA officer, Spanberger defeated Tea Party Republican Dave Brat when she was first elected to the House in 2018. She then defeated state Del. Nick Freitas in 2020, winning reelection.

The 7th district back then included parts of the Richmond suburbs, where Spanberger lives. But after this year’s redistricting, the Richmond suburbs are out. The district now includes portions of Northern Virginia. (Members of Congress do not have to live in the district they are running for.)  

Spanberger has held at least 12 meet-and-greet events in the 7th congressional district this year, introducing herself to Virginians whom she could represent if she wins. 

While in office, Spanberger has long touted her proclivity for bipartisanship. She's also vice chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus

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Former President Donald Trump signed into law legislation that she and Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas., introduced—the Trafficking and Smuggling Intelligence Act, which combats drug trafficking networks in Central America and strengthens border security— as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020.

She's worked with Texas Republican Chip Roy on the TRUST in Congress Act to ban stock trading among members of Congress and their family members.

Spanberger also hasn’t hesitated to criticize Democrats for veering off-track or to buck Democratic leaders. She voted against Nancy Pelosi’s House speaker bid and famously critiqued the president during a New York Times interview in the wake of the Virginia governor’s race last year.

"Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” Spanberger said.  

President Joe Biden hugs Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., as he arrives on Marine One at Culpeper Regional Airport, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Brandy Station, Va.

Despite Biden’s polling numbers, Spanberberg has not distanced herself from the president.

Biden toured Culpeper County, part of the 7th district, with Spanberger to tout the Build Back Better framework’s ability to lower prescription drug prices earlier last month.

The NRCC again slammed Spanberger for voting for Build Back Better after Biden’s visit.

“She continues to loyally support Biden's agenda, the Democrats' big spending programs. This is doing nothing to help inflation at all,” said Gallo.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that Spanberger’s old 7th district was the most conservative district in Virginia that a Democrat represented.

“Congresswoman Spanberger basically wrote the book on how a Democratic member of Congress can get elected in an unfriendly terrain,” Farnsworth said. “And her mixture of an economic focus and a national security focus can resonate in Virginia.”

Similarly, UVA’s Coleman agreed that Spanberger’s background is compatible with voters in the 7th district. “I think she probably fits that district as well as a Democrat can. So, if she can’t hold it, it's going to be that great of a night for Republicans in November.” 

He predicts that if Spanberger wins, Republicans can still take the House, but they could end up picking fewer seats than expected. If Spanberger loses, “then I can see Republicans having a pretty decent majority, maybe upwards of 235 seats,” Coleman said.

But, political experts caution, anything can still happen between now and November.

"The good news for Democrats of course is elections are not held right now,” said Farnsworth.

“There's still several months for the Democrats to figure out a way to connect more effectively with voters, or to provide a political environment that voters can feel better about.”