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Catching Up With Rep. Abigail Spanberger
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Catching Up With Rep. Abigail Spanberger

Plus: The dream of a sort-of-bipartisan January 6 commission evaporates.

Happy Friday—and go Team USA! This week, we caught up with Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Democrat who hails from a bellwether district in Virginia and is not afraid to buck her party on occasion. As the 2022 midterm elections near, she’ll be one to watch. 

Stuck in the Middle with Spanberger

In the era of Joe Biden’s presidency, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger is in just about the most exciting—and the most fragile—place to be: the middle.

Post-mortems of the 2020 election largely held that it was the middle—suburban voters, independents, nonvoters and moderate-to-conservative Democrats—that delivered Biden the presidency and Democrats one-party control of Washington. Biden appealed to these voters in part with a message of restoration of norms—an implication he would seek to restore a corroding American center, fast disappearing under a tug of war between the progressive left and the far right. In his inauguration speech, he continued that theme, pledging to work across the aisle and to be the president for all Americans.

Then, of course, the grim reality of governing—and governing with razor thin majorities at that—set in.

Progressives with megaphones, amplified by the national media, have urged their party to go big and Biden to embrace a role as the next Lyndon Johnson who will usher in another Great Society. Moderates in the party, more skeptical that their party has a big-government mandate, argue instead that Democrats should focus on working across the aisle and cutting deals with Republicans.

Enter Spanberger: She represents Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which is cobbled together largely by rural and suburban enclaves. Spanberger’s approach was shaped by a career working on drug and money laundering cases as a federal law enforcement officer for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, before shifting to issues of terrorism and nuclear proliferation as a case officer for the CIA. In 2014, she left the intelligence sector to join a consulting firm that focused on the education industry. Spanberger has a central message for her colleagues and voters: Enough with the sloganeering, let’s focus on results.

“I have to spend every single day talking about the policies I support … with people whose natural inclination is not to vote for a Democrat,” Spanberger told The Dispatch. “I can’t stand in front of a room and sort of give an applause line and have that be it because, you know, half the room—if it’s representative of my district—isn’t going to respond to that applause line. And so I’ve got to talk through, this is why I advocate for this issue.”

A Blue Dog Democrat, Spanberger is the type of lawmaker that makes majorities; she also represents the type of district that her party only tenuously holds. Virginia’s 7th District snakes across Central Virginia, from rural Culpeper down to Chesterfield and Henrico of Richmond’s suburbs. Former President Donald Trump won the district by seven points in 2016. 

Spanberger’s surprise 2-point victory in 2018 against Rep. Dave Brat—a rock-ribbed conservative and member of the House Freedom Caucus—upset decades of GOP representation in the 7th, including a stint by former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. She narrowly won again in 2020 in an incredibly expensive campaign against Republican State Delegate Nick Freitas, this time by 1.8 points. Biden’s carrying the district likely helped her.

“My whole point is we are now the majority party. We now have the responsibility of actually governing,” Spanberger said. “I find it just so surprising that instead of saying, this is what we’re doing, and these are the policies we’re for—that it’s sometimes easier to just be reductive down to a slogan.”

Just days after the 2020 election, in which the GOP unseated 13 largely moderate House Democrats, Spanberger became a leading voice for centrist frustrations. In a private caucus conference call in November, she lambasted the party’s dalliance with socialism and tolerance for slogans like “Defund the Police,” which had spooked voters, given GOP ad-writers a field day, and cost Democrats seats she said they should have won.

Those losses must have felt particularly brutal given the rosy prognostications of pollsters, some of whom predicted Democrats would gain as many as 15 seats.

“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” she said on the call. “We lost good members because of that.” She added: “if we are classifying Tuesday as a success … we will get f—ing torn apart in 2022.”

It doesn’t seem like the party has heeded her warning in the months since. 

Take the current fight over infrastructure reform. Democrats want to pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill as well as a reconciliation bill chock-full of trillions for social programs. Spanberger believes that Biden’s insistence on meeting for weeks with Republicans in hopes of a deal—a deal that has since tentatively come together—is a clear call to congressional Democrats to prioritize physical infrastructure.

“I think it’s a mistake or unnecessary … to tie it with anything else,” Spanberger said. The “anything else” is a reference to the $3.5 trillion reconciliation proposal, currently in framework form, that would include Biden’s agenda on health care, education, climate, and poverty programs.

“Reconciliation frequently takes much, much longer. And so I don’t see any reason why we should be slowing or hamstringing a deal that’s already there, on a major priority for the American people, because we’re still waiting to talk about and hash out some other piece of legislation that, you know, is still in its infancy,” Spanberger reasoned. “As soon as the Senate votes on the physical infrastructure legislation, then I think the House should take an immediate vote.”

Here she is out of step with Democratic leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have said that the reconciliation package and infrastructure deal should pass in tandem. Pelosi on Thursday told reporters that the House won’t take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the reconciliation bill.

Being out of step with her party is not a new position for the sophomore lawmaker. When she first came into office in 2019, she fulfilled a campaign pledge by becoming one of 15 Democratic lawmakers who refused to vote for Pelosi to assume the speaker position. She’s since taken other tough votes, such as declining to support the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief and stimulus package.

Behind Spanberger’s willingness to buck her party is the uncomfortable fact that she will likely face another tough election come 2022. The National Republican Congressional Committee has her in its sights: She was on the first public list of Democratic lawmakers the NRCC said it was targeting come midterm elections.

The GOP nominee will likely follow the same playbook Freitas ran in 2020—trying to link her to Pelosi, reminding voters of Spanberger’s vote in favor of impeaching Trump, and portraying her as favoring “more government intervention.”

Spanberger is also quick to point out the legislation that she’s reached across the aisle to work on. Her issues are largely kitchen table ones: she wants to lower the cost of prescription drug prices, expand rural areas’ internet access, and allow farmers access to the carbon credit market for sustainable environmental practices. 

On each of those issues, she’s introduced a bill co-sponsored by a Republican. Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who is working with Spanberger on the Growing Climate Solutions Act, said in an emailed statement to The Dispatch that he has enjoyed working with Spanberger on the issue. “I appreciate her passion for our agriculture sector,” he said.

The nonpartisan group Common Ground, which measures members’ tendency to seek bipartisan solutions on social and political issues, rates Spanberger among its top ten lawmakers.

While outspoken progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tend to steal the spotlight and garner an outsized share of social media attention, moderates like Spanberger are more representative of the Democratic party as a whole. That’s according to Mo Elleithee, a Democratic political strategist and executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, who told The Dispatch: “The Twitter base loves ‘Defund the Police,’ but most Democratic voters don’t.”

“We could go through a lot of the 2018 midterms, there were more Conor Lambs and Abigail Spanbergers nominated than there were AOCs nominated,” he added. He also referenced the recent New York Democratic mayoral primary, in which Eric Adams, the more moderate, pro-law enforcement candidate bested the more progressive, Justice Democrat-type candidate to his left.

Spanberger and Ocasio-Cortez both support police reform, Elleithee noted, but the difference is that Spanberger has rejected the “Defund the Police” movement as a whole: “That’s a very palatable place for a lot of voters who might get freaked out by the slogan … but still understand that changes need to be made…The political strength is actually on that side. They shouldn’t feel the need to tiptoe around it.”

January 6 Bipartisanship Breathes Its Last

When Republicans spiked legislation to establish a bipartisan January 6 commission back in May, it seemed they’d given House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the green light to run a House commission in a more aggressively partisan manner. But both parties made gestures toward bipartisanship in recent weeks, with Pelosi inviting Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to supply a handful of Republicans for the commission and McCarthy—after some hemming and hawing—agreeing to do so.

Even that small gesture toward bipartisanship, however, has now run aground.

On Monday, McCarthy announced his five picks to serve on the committee: Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana would serve as the ranking Republican, to be joined by Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas, and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.

Immediately upon this announcement, Banks made clear what his intentions were as a member of the committee.

“We need leaders who will force the Democrats and the media to answer questions so far ignored,” Banks said in a statement accepting the position. “If Democrats were serious about investigating political violence, this committee would be studying not only the January 6 riot at the Capitol, but also the hundreds of violent political riots last summer when many more innocent Americans and law enforcement officers were attacked.” 

Of those Republicans, Nehls, Jordan, and Banks all objected to the 2020 election results in January.  Jordan and Banks also signed onto the Texas lawsuit that contested the election results in four battleground states.

Leader McCarthy tried to spin including election-deniers  as a good thing for the committee: “You’ve got a mix from the entire conference, from people who objected, people who didn’t object. … You’ve got people who authored the commission,” McCarthy told reporters, according to CNN. “So, you’ve got a microcosm of the conference.”

Pelosi, however, did not think that type of diversity was a good thing. On Wednesday, she rejected McCarthy’s pick of Banks and Jordan to the committee, but said she would accept the other three Republicans. “The unprecedented nature of January 6th demands this unprecedented decision,” she said in a statement.

Hours after Pelosi’s announcement, McCarthy completely withdrew all of the Republicans he previously named to the committee. At a press conference, McCarthy accused Pelosi of playing politics with the decision: “Pelosi has created a sham process. Unless Speaker Pelosi reverses course and seats all five Republicans we will not participate,” he said. 

It bears repeating once again that all this was preventable. As we’ve written at length in Uphill, the commission legislation negotiated with Democrats by GOP Rep. John Katko would have split commission power equally between Republicans and Democrats—a remarkable concession given that Democrats could have opted to go the one-party route from the beginning. Although McCarthy lobbied against the bill, it passed the House with the support of 35 Republican members. But Senate Republicans spiked the legislation on the questionable grounds that it would empanel a partisan investigation—exactly the sort of investigation they ensured would take place by spiking it.

Instead of a bipartisan commission, then, it appears we’ll have not one but two partisan ones. McCarthy said Republicans’ next step will be to conduct their own investigation into the events of January 6. He gave no specifics on what that investigation process would look like or when it would start. Nor did McCarthy’s office respond to a request for comment from The Dispatch on these issues. The only tidbit of information McCarthy offered to reporters was a central question the GOP investigation would look to answer: why was the Capitol so ill-prepared for this attack?

On Wednesday, The Dispatch asked Nehls if looking into the motive of rioters was something he was investigating. The Texas congressman—who boasted of a thick three ring binder’s worth of information and his own research into the attacks of January 6 at McCarthy’s press conference earlier in the day—simply said, “No. I was looking to find the truth.” 

Nehls stressed that he was more focused on what took place at the Capitol, rather than why the rioters were there in the first place. When pressed by The Dispatch multiple times on whether or not the question of motive would be part of the Republican investigation going forward, Nehls did not offer a clear answer. 

Technically, the select committee can still call itself a bipartisan one. Much to the chagrin of McCarthy, Speaker Pelosi named Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming to the committee. 

On Wednesday, Cheney told reporters she agreed with Pelosi’s decision to reject Banks and Jordan: “The rhetoric around this from the Minority Leader and from those two members has been disgraceful. This must be an investigation that is focused on facts, and the idea that any of this has become politicized is really unworthy of the office that we all hold and unworthy of our Republic.” 

It’s unclear whether Pelosi will put more Republicans on the committee, now that she has rejected McCarthy’s picks. Reporters asked her multiple times Thursday if she would do so, but she failed to offer a clear answer. Other GOP names floated were Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Rep. Peter Meijer, both of whom have said they would be willing to serve. Another possible advisory addition to the committee is former Congressman Denver Riggleman, who was spotted on Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon. Riggleman is a former Air Force intelligence officer and an outspoken critic of President Trump. 

As for the future of the bipartisan select committee, Chairman Bennie Thompson said on Wednesday that they will press on by holding their first hearing next Tuesday. 

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Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.

Ryan Brown is a community manager for The Dispatch. He previously served as a researcher and production assistant for Meet the Press.