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A Moderate Running in Immoderate Times

Democrat Abigail Spanberger’s focus on policy, plans, and people.
by Jim Swift
October 28, 2022
A Moderate Running in Immoderate Times
Abigail Spanberger shaking hands, petting dogs, and kissing babies at a campaign rally. (Photo by Jim Swift / The Bulwark)

Dumfries, Virginia
Something has always bothered me about the religious invocations that often precede political rallies—the incongruity of praising God before bashing your opponent can be jarring. But I’ve heard enough of them to know that they often serve as a preview of things to come.

This week, I attended campaign events for the two congressional candidates facing off where I live, in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District—and in each case, the religious leaders who opened the proceedings set the tone for everything that followed.

At Republican Yesli Vega’s rally on Monday, held at a nondenominational church, local pastor Brad Lewis warned about darkness and the various forms it takes: abortion, those who “attempted to steal the identities of of our youth with perversion and gender confusion,” the alleged censorship of pastors, and so forth. Ted Cruz’s dad, also a pastor, gave remarks as well, telling the audience that, “If we lose this election, America is destroyed. There will not be a 2024.”

The whole event went on like this—darkness and the threat of darkness in every direction.

By contrast, Democrat Abigail Spanberger’s rally at an early-voting center in Dumfries on Tuesday opened with a fiery oration from Luke Torian, a Baptist preacher and member of the Virginia House of Delegates. As a Catholic, I must confess a certain ignorance of the ways of Baptist and evangelical preachers, which might account for my surprise at how quickly Torian shifted from offering benign pleasantries to lighting up Spanberger’s opponent for her apparent derelictions of civic duty.

And that set the tone for the rest of the Spanberger event: Combative, yes, but with an emphasis not on doom and gloom but on civic responsibility and even occasional calls for unity.

Rep. Spanberger saying hi. (Photo by Jim Swift / The Bulwark)

Dumfries is home to a population of about 6,000. “It’s not a town you drive through, it’s a town you drive to,” as the town’s enthusiastic mayor, Derrick Wood, likes to say. Its heritage stretches back to the 1690s, and local residents take pride in their town’s long pedigree.

The Spanberger event was held in a parking lot on Main Street, marked off with painter’s tape. A retro Bluetooth boombox cranked out tunes. The speeches were delivered into a portable mic/speaker set like what you might see at a Bingo hall. Nearby was a single tent with a swag table and donuts from the local off-track betting racino.

The audience was small—just a couple dozen people—but Spanberger’s team did bring in a Democratic heavyweight: Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House Democratic whip, who made the brief drive down I-95 from D.C. to speak and take questions. Clyburn played a crucial role helping Barack Obama win the Democratic nomination in 2008, and famously did the same for Joe Biden in 2020.

Event planners originally wanted Rep. Clyburn to introduce Spanberger, following the custom for campaign rallies, but she wisely demurred. Spanberger is a tall white woman—and a former CIA officer and postal inspector, to boot—making an appeal to voters in a newly redrawn district. It wasn’t just a matter of sensitivity about race before a majority-black audience; nor was it performative modesty on Spanberger’s part or deference to a senior Democratic leader; rather, she knows that Clyburn can knock an audience’s socks off, and you don’t want to have to follow him as a speaker.

Spanberger doesn’t have the reputation of being an especially thrilling orator. But she has a knack for connecting with people face-to-face. She’s one of those people who simply cannot hide her genuine reactions to things, whether meeting a chubby-cheeked baby, seeing a rescue dog whose vest has been tagged with her campaign’s bumper sticker, or laughing at a surprising joke. Each of these things happened on Tuesday, and Spanberger’s endearing reactions made them part of the show.

Reps. Spanberger and Clyburn listening to Dumfries mayor Derrick Wood. (Photo by Jim Swift / The Bulwark)

The Cook Political Report rates the Vega-Spanberger race as a D+1 toss-up. At the GOP event on Monday night, Gov. Glenn Youngkin was crowing about how, in his own race for governor around this time last year, the media was saying that Terry McAuliffe had the contest all locked up.

Abigail Spanberger, though, is no Terry McAuliffe. For one thing, she’s not smarmy, and while she’s a good retail politician, she’s not on the same level as back-slappin’ TMac.

What she does have is that expressive face and those genuine reactions to the people in front of her. The power of these traits was on display here in Dumfries on Tuesday.

“I am running for re-election because I love the job of representing people,” she told the crowd.

I love the job of being out and about and hearing the concerns, the challenges, the realities of what people are facing across our communities and across the Commonwealth, and being able to go to Capitol Hill and write and vote for legislation that impacts people’s lives, like lowering the cost of prescription drugs, lowering the cost of healthcare, recognizing the challenges that we are facing as a community.

These are simple ideas being expressed in the language of personal identification, solidarity, and hope. Political rhetoric 101, right? But Spanberger’s remarks sound like a high-flying passage out of Aristotle or Rousseau when compared with Vega’s pitch, which is, as she bragged to attendees on Monday night, to do the “opposite of everything Abigail Spanberger has been doing.” That’s a bit more “jealous younger sibling” than Cato the Younger, if you get my drift.

Rep. Jim Clyburn speaking. (Photo by Jim Swift / The Bulwark)

Then came Jim Clyburn, with a rousing, clearly extemporaneous speech. He covered a wide range of topics that obscured the distance between the personal and the political; it was a command performance.

“This election is the most consequential election of our lifetime,” Clyburn said. Why?

Because in spite of all the things we want to do, none of it, none of it, would get done unless we preserve the integrity of this democracy. None of it would be worth anything unless we have a democracy.

Clyburn continued:

This country is not great because it is more enlightened than any other nation, but rather because she has always been able to repair her faults, always been able to repair her faults. COVID-19 visited some fault upon us, and we set out to repair those faults. We have done a lot. But a lot is left yet to be done and we can do the rest.

The contrast between Monday night’s doom-and-gloom Republican rally and Clyburn’s message in broad daylight of hope and the need to fight for democracy could not have been greater.

With their speeches concluded, Spanberger and Clyburn took questions. I was curious to hear from the candidate about her strategy to appeal to voters like me—disaffected former Republicans and conservative independents—and was impressed to learn that Spanberger had received an endorsement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as she also did in 2020. “They’ve endorsed me yet again because of the work that I have done to support our communities, to support our economy, to support small businesses,” she said.

The mark of approval from the chamber provided ammunition for a new line of attack on Vega: “Notably, my opponent has no plan. My opponent likes to point fingers, and talk about challenges and problems that people are facing, but she presents absolutely no plan.” Here’s why the chamber’s endorsement matters: For decades, the chamber and Republicans were like peas and carrots. Democrats seldom got endorsements. Then, in 2020, the chamber gambled on Democrats, supporting a larger number than usual—30, including 23 freshmen. Now, two years later, the chamber, apparently feeling burned by various Biden administration policies that congressional Democrats backed, has endorsed just 10.

Like certain other institutions Republicans once held dear, like the FBI, the Chamber of Commerce has become a target of the GOP’s wrath. Republicans have even made plans to investigate the chamber if they take control of the House of Representatives. Disaffected Republicans are still generally pro-market, and the chamber’s endorsement still holds considerable sway. So it’s striking that one of the chamber’s few endorsements of a Democrat this year went to Spanberger—and that Vega got snubbed. It takes effort for a Republican to avoid receiving the chamber’s endorsement.

Getting the nod from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce won’t give a candidate a huge boost. But in a race this tight, every endorsement, every hint of momentum, matters. If Spanberger does win on November 8, it will be as a moderate with appeal across the aisle—a model for Democrats to keep in mind well beyond 2022.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.