WASHINGTON â€“ Even when analysts called her race a â€œtoss-up,â€ Abigail Spanberger said she never doubted she would win her bid to represent Virginiaâ€™s 7th Congressional District.
Sure, no woman had ever served the central Virginia district, and itâ€™s been in Republican hands since 1971. But to Spanberger, who grew up there, it felt as though there had been â€œan awakening.â€
â€œIt was this ever-sort-of-unfolding thing,â€ she told USA TODAY. â€œThere were protests, there were vigils. When the travel ban came out there were people in the street.
â€œI participated in everything,â€ she said at a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., during a break inÂ new-member orientation.Â
Spanberger beat the incumbent Rep. Dave Brat by 2 percentage points. In hindsight, her win makes sense, given the dynamics of this election.
Well over half of the winners in House districts the Democrats flipped were women. Democrats like Spanberger made inroads with women and wealthy voters in the suburbs with a campaign message that was laser-focused on affordable health care. And several like Spanberger â€“Â a former undercover Central Intelligence Agency operative â€“Â ran on their military and national security backgrounds.
Spanberger may have been helped in part by some factors specific to her race. Redistricting in 2016 brought some different voters into the district, and the GOP candidate at the top of the ticket â€“Â Senate hopeful Corey Stewart â€“Â could have been a drag on down-ballot contests.
But on the whole, what happened in her district is not only emblematic of this election, but of political shifts across the USA for the last decade, leading up to the presidency of Donald Trump.
â€œIn this district, the tea party ousted the Republican establishment,â€ said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant who grew up in the district. â€œThen Trump took over the Republican Party and now the suburbs have thrown Trumpâ€™s â€˜yes menâ€™ out. Itâ€™s the story of the last decade in politics that can be seen in Richmond.â€
Hereâ€™s how Spanbergerâ€™s victory reflects those dynamics:
For more than a dozen years, the GOPâ€™s Eric Cantor represented the district, winning re-election with ease. He rose to become the House Majority Leader in 2011 after helping engineer the Republican takeover of the House.
But shortly after the tea party revolution helped flip control of the House, it became a force in the districtâ€™s 2014 GOP primary, with former economics professor Dave Brat ousting the more mainstream Cantor in a stunning upset.
BratÂ joined the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus and spent much of his time in the chamber trying to pull legislation farther right, even when that conflicted with GOP leadership’s goals. Brat declined multiple requests to comment for this story.
Mo Elleithee, founding executive director of Georgetown Universityâ€™s Institute of Politics and Public Service, said Brat â€œwasnâ€™t going to be sustainableâ€ in office.
â€œThe laws of political gravity were going to pull him down at some point. The question was just, when? And it turns out the political winds along with a very disciplined candidate in Spanberger were able to tap into that,â€ said Elleithee, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked on multiple statewide Virginia races.
The district is conservative, reliably voting for GOP presidential candidates, including Trump. Republicans should have never lost, but in this election, most of the â€œbetterâ€ Republican incumbents â€œsurvived the landslide and the worst candidates did not,â€ said Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster.
â€œ(Brat) defeated a very popular incumbent, and there were Republicans who were never really happy with that,â€ said Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster. â€œAnd he never really worked the district as well as he could have … Thatâ€™s one of the seats that the GOP will target in 2020 to win back.â€
After a couple of contentious town halls turned rowdy, Bratâ€™s team â€“Â and other Republicans across the country â€“Â eventually decided to stop hosting them altogether. Instead, Brat focused on smaller more controlled events and meetings, but he was still frustrated by what had happened.
â€œSince Obamacare and these issues have come up, the women are in my grill no matter where I go,â€ Brat was caught on tape saying in early 2017.
Welcome to the â€œyear of the woman.â€ Wait, that was 1992, when a then-record 47 women were elected to the House. This may be the “year of the badass woman.” You know, those who sling credentials such as former military helicopter pilot or rock climber or, in Spanberger’s case,Â former undercover CIA operative that happens to also be a mom and activist.
Spanberger was one of the suburban moms who had been at the town halls. She was upset with Bratâ€™s vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
It was among the many reasons that motivated a record number of women to run for office this year, resulting in more women lawmakers who will serve next Congress than ever before.
Of the 88Â newcomers to the House, 35 are women and all but one of those women is a Democrat. In Virginia, all three of the districts that flipped from red to blue were won by women.
â€œFor many of them, I think there was an effort to have a really personal connection with voters,â€ Spanberger said.
Women notably brought all aspects of their lives to the campaign trail, including their children. Spanberger did that, but not without hesitation. She didnâ€™t want to be â€œtoo much of a momâ€ on the campaign trail, worrying that sheâ€™d have to justify the balancing act to voters. She also didnâ€™t want to take away their privacy too early.
But as the campaign went on, she began including her children in conversations with voters. And it was an asset.
â€œI started hearing people say, â€˜I love that you have this experience and that youâ€™re so passionate â€“ and that youâ€™re a mom,â€™â€ she said. â€œAnd I heard it from men and women.â€
Spanberger didnâ€™t hesitate when asked what was important to voters this election: health care.
â€œItâ€™s the number one,â€ she said.
Indeed, after spending the last eight years running from the issue, Democrats ran on it this election, forcefully. They capitalized on Republicansâ€™ failed efforts to pass legislation last year that would have unraveled many of Obamacareâ€™s popular consumer protections, done away with the individual mandate and overhauled the insurance market.
â€œPeople donâ€™t like the cost of Obamacare or the instability that it created, but because Republicans were so public about it, the Republicans came to own the issue,â€ said Luntz, the GOP strategist and pollster. â€œI think itâ€™s not something they expected at the time.â€
Overturning the 2010 law had been a potent campaign issue for Republicans â€“ including Brat â€“ until this election. A major pillar of his 2014 campaign was the promise to repeal the health care law â€“ and it was critical to his undoing.
Spanberger had been considering a run but made her decision the day of the House vote. She remained almost singularly focused on the topic during her campaign.
â€œPeople in this district were far less interested in Donald Trumpâ€™s latest conspiracy theory than they were with protecting people with pre-existing conditions. And thatâ€™s what you saw in suburban districts all across the country,â€ said Ferguson, the Democratic strategist.
More: Wealthy suburban voters, women: How Democrats captured the House in the 2018 midterms
Spanbergerâ€™s support in a swanky part of the Richmond suburbs seemed to catch people by surprise, she noticed.
â€œPeople would say, â€˜Oh my Goodness, Iâ€™ve seen your signs on River Road,â€™â€ Spanberger said. â€œThereâ€™s that level of â€˜Who would have thought?â€™â€
In another era, those signs likely would have boosted a Republican. But the suburbs are changing.
When he was Virginiaâ€™s governor from 2006 to 2010, Tim Kaine said, the 7th District was the most Republican and had the highest turnout in congressional races. But he wasnâ€™t surprised when Spanberger won.
â€œThe suburbs are growing faster than the rural parts of the district and suburban voters are more and more likely to go Dem,â€ said Kaine, now a Democratic U.S. senator representing the state.
Here’s a fun fact about thoseÂ suburbs: The majority of the House seats that flipped from Republicans to Democrats this election cycle contain a Whole Foods Market, notes Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. The store caters to female, well-educated, upper-class shoppers â€“Â the exact demographic a USA TODAY analysis found propelled Democratic wins across the country.
Suburban areas are drawing more college-educated professionals who may be fiscally conservative but are socially liberal, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. The party of Donald Trump isnâ€™t a fit for many of these voters, he said.
â€œInstead of a polished, well-educated fiscal conservative party, theyâ€™re faced with an in-your-face, rude and offensive party and thatâ€™s quite a contrast,â€ Sabato said. â€œOf course itâ€™s caused people to rethink their affiliations. Thatâ€™s not the (way of the) suburbs.â€
As Trump took hold of the party, suburban voters walked away, Ferguson said.
â€œEveryone who was looking for a blue wave or red wave â€“ a lot of what we saw was a suburban tsunami,â€ he said. â€œThis district was a big part of that.â€
Contributing:Â MattÂ Wynn
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