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Spanberger takes swing-district views to Democratic leaders

'Swing districts are far more representative of the United States'

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., won her 2022 race by 4.6 percentage points, far less than the 33-point average margin of the four top House Democrats.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., won her 2022 race by 4.6 percentage points, far less than the 33-point average margin of the four top House Democrats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Abigail Spanberger dismisses the idea that Democrats can’t win and hold conservative districts, despite some notable losses — including by fellow Agriculture Committee colleague Cindy Axne — in the 2022 elections.  

As the first elected go-between for swing-district Democrats and party leaders, Spanberger aims to help her battleground colleagues thrive. 

Spanberger, D-Va., is tasked with voicing the interests of Democratic lawmakers whose jobs are perpetually on the line. As the caucus sets legislative and messaging priorities, her goal is to make sure neither the bills nor the messages alienate voters in the districts where Republicans have the best chance to defeat a Democrat.

In her view, such an approach will also make the party more representative of the country as a whole. 

“Swing districts are far more representative of the United States,” Spanberger said in an interview. “We have, by virtue of being swing districts, a little bit of everything. I think it is important for leadership to hear what we’re hearing on the ground, because that helps us do our job better.”

Spanberger, who expects to remain on the House Agriculture Committee this Congress, said voters in her suburban-urban-rural district  “want pragmatism. They want to see us get something done, they want to see us solve problems. They want a focus on ag issues.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put 39 incumbents on its Frontline program list of most vulnerable members for the 2022 election. They included Spanberger and Rep. Susie Lee, the Nevada Democrat who proposed the liaison role that Spanberger now fills.

Axne, who represented Iowa’s 3rd District, was also on the list. She, along with other Frontline members, lost her seat. 

Lee’s response was to push the Democrats to name an advocate for the swing district members and to institute weekly meetings between the advocate and leaders. The move would give the group a single voice and noticeably more time with leaders than the monthly meeting then-Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer held with centrist Democrats in the last Congress. 

“I think that I have always had it in the back of my head,” Lee said in an interview. “I felt it was important for us to have our dedicated leader at a seat at the leaders’ table. We represent members in the most vulnerable districts. Whether it is a district like mine, which is mostly suburban, or a district like Abigail’s that is mostly rural, I think we represent constituents that are important to the policies we should be creating.”

Leadership positions are generally held by lawmakers who come from safer Democratic strongholds, she said. 

The four top Democrats in House leadership — Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts, Pete Aguilar of California and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina — won reelection in November by an average of 33 percentage points. Lee won her race by 4 points; Spanberger won by 4.6 points.

“We’d win the toughest seats in the country, and then we’d come back, and then you’d look at the leadership table and no one sitting at the table represented the toughest seats in the country,” Lee said. “You needed to have a dedicated person who would stand up and explain why certain bills are problematic or why people are taking certain positions on certain bills.”

Spanberger made a similar observation.

“Folks in super safe seats, nobody ever questions whether or not they will join a leadership position. That means at the leadership table, things that we’re hearing on the ground in swing districts are not necessarily making it there,” she said. 

Spanberger criticized some Democrats’ calls to “defund the police” after law enforcement officials killed or mistreated Black and minority people. Without nuance, that call gave Republicans fodder for campaign ads tagging Democrats as anti-police in more conservative districts, she said.

Lee said she found Jeffries, the minority leader; Clark, the minority whip; and Aguilar, the Democratic caucus chair, to be supportive.

“I think, in general, people understand that basically we want to be back in the majority in 2024, and, in order to do that, you have to win tough seats,” she said. “If we want to win and we want to get the gavel and we want to have the chairman positions on these committees, we’ve  got to make sure we are listening to people in those districts and delivering for them in those tough seats.”   

Despite Axne’s and five other incumbent Democrats’ losses in November, Spanberger said the party can take heart from its resiliency in winning several centrist seats, including her own. She also noted the victories of freshmen Yadira Caraveo and Brittany Pettersen from Colorado and Gabe Vasquez from New Mexico. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico was elected to a full term after winning a 2021 special election.

Spanberger and Lee also are using membership on the Democratic Steering Committee to push for committee assignments to aid swing district lawmakers. 

In particular, Spanberger said freshmen with key rural or agriculture constituencies want seats on the House Agriculture Committee as the panel prepares to write the 2023 farm bill,  a sprawling multiyear policy bill.  

Jeffries said on Jan. 26 that the party’s steering and policy committee was recommending 11 new members for the Agriculture panel. In addition to Caraveo and Vasquez, they are Reps. Andrea Salinas of Oregon; Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of Washington; Don Davis of North Carolina; Jill N. Tokuda of Hawaii; Nikki Budzinski, Eric Sorensen and Jonathan L. Jackson, all of Illinois; and Jasmine Crockett and Greg Casar of Texas.            

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