2018-06-06 / News

The operative: Abigail Spanberger

In race for 7th, Former CIA agent targets Brat

Abigail Spanberger 
ASH DANIEL Abigail Spanberger ASH DANIEL Regardless of one’s feelings about President Donald Trump, there’s a political reality few can dispute: His election has led to more women seeking public office than ever before.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group, some 527 women had stepped up to seek congressional office by the end of April, a 67 percent jump over 2016. Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which includes portions of Chesterfield and Henrico, is at the cutting edge of this trend: Following Trump’s election, a group of local voters formed the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, a grassroots organization that has garnered national media attention and spawned at least one branch in another state . is group has put the 7th

Th District incumbent, U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, directly in their crosshairs, pressing the Republican congressman at public events on issues like health care. Brat has long aligned himself with Trump, making this fall’s 7th District race a critical one locally and nationally. Democratic candidates Dan Ward and Abigail Spanberger are well-financed and well-positioned politically to test the former economics professor in November. But first, they’ll face off against each other in the June 12 primary.

For her part, Spanberger may be going into the vote with an edge: In a year when being a female Democratic candidate appears to be a political strength, she also enjoys a long list of endorsements from left-leaning organizations and members of the party establishment.

Born in New Jersey, Spanberger, 38, lived in multiple states growing up, moving to Short Pump at age 12. After graduating from the University of Virginia, she taught English in Germany for a summer, then entered a 12-month MBA program.

In 2002, Spanberger moved to Washington, D.C., where she was hired by the CIA. While she waited for her background check, she worked as a federal agent with the U.S. Postal Service, investigating narcotics, money laundering and dangerous mail. She began work for the CIA in 2006, serving in D.C., on the West Coast and in Europe. Though unable to talk about the specifics of her assignments, she has said she gathered intelligence about nuclear proliferation and terrorism. After leaving the CIA in 2014, she and her family moved back to Henrico.

Spanberger says she decided to run because she believes Brat and other members of Congress aren’t representing the wishes of their constituents. She cites Republicans’ efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act – also called Obamacare – as a prime example.

“Our representatives in Washington are not serving the needs of the people in their districts, and that’s particularly true for us,” said Spanberger, referencing Brat. “Our congressman has been very driven by ideology. I don’t think he makes any bones about that.”

When asked what differentiates her from Ward, Spanberger said her campaign is about solutions, not just talking about problems.

“Beating the drum about how terrible the president is just beating the drum,” she said. “It’s not actually doing something productive.”

The role that Spanberger’s gender would play in a matchup with Brat has been lost on few. Even before the primary, Spanberger has been featured in Elle magazine, received an endorsement from EMILY’s List and was part of a Time magazine cover featuring female politicians.

While the 7th has long been a solidly Republican district, a number of factors have worked to make this race less predictable than usual. Brat won comfortably in the 2016 election, securing a 15-point win over Democratic candidate Eileen Bedell, but the so-called Democratic “blue wave” has altered the outlook this year. The discord sowed by the Trump administration, the rise of women in politics, the recent wins of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and the Democratic gains in the House of Delegates all suggest the 7th District isn’t a lock for Brat.

Bedell, Brat’s previous challenger, has endorsed Spanberger, saying she has a better strategy and understanding of the district than Ward. She also sees Spanberger’s gender as a boon.

“She is an amazingly qualified candidate whose experience matches the position,” Bedell said. “[Women] want to have a seat at the table so that we have demographic representation.”

Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at University of Mary Washington, said Ward and Spanberger are equally competitive candidates.

“They’re both very aggressive in going to meetings and getting themselves known,” Farnsworth said. “The Democratic field in this primary, as well as other contests, speaks to the high level of enthusiasm that the Democrats have about 2018. It’s hard to get strong Democratic challengers in districts drawn to elect Republicans, but this year’s enthusiasm on the Democratic side has created a range of higher-quality candidates.”

Nonetheless, while factors like the Russian collusion investigation, the state of the economy come November and how trade disputes impact Virginian businesses may play a role in the election, at this point, Farnsworth is leaning toward a Brat victory.

“As things look right now, Brat is probably more likely to be reelected than not,” he said. “His odds are better than 50/50, but perhaps not a lot better than 50/50.”

As for how Spanberger’s gender might factor into the race, Farnsworth thinks it can only help. “Women candidates seem like very effective challengers to [Republican incumbents],” Farnsworth said, adding that women “can often benefit from the divisive nature of Donald Trump as a candidate and a president.”

Asked about her part in the tide of female candidates hoping to gain office, Spanberger is pleased.

“I’m excited to be among the women who are running,” she said. “It’s not just about the women candidates. It’s about the women activists and the women supporters, because there is a driving force of people who really want to see change.” ¦

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