Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia gubernatorial victory, which made him the first Republican to win statewide since 2009, has frightened Democrats nationwide and was a fire bell in the night for two Democratic members of congress from the commonwealth who face tough reelection bids next year. While Youngkin’s win will be analyzed for its national import, it undoubtedly will have more impact in Virginia, where Democratic Representatives Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, who were elected to congress in 2018, saw their districts swing to Youngkin.
The two are among the most impressive members of an outstanding Democratic class, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Katie Porter, Ritchie Torres, and Sharice Davids. They’re not as well-known as AOC, but they should be.
The two Virginia members have some things in common. Each won a district that Republicans had long held and each have national security credentials.
Luria, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, who spent most of her 20-year career serving on combat ships as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer, represents the Virginia Beach and Williamsburg areas. Spanberger holds the central Virginia seat long held by Representative Eric Cantor, a member of Republican leadership, who lost his GOP primary in 2014 to a more conservative, anti-immigration Republican, Dave Brat. Spanberger knocked Brat off in 2018 and held onto the seat in 2020. Before Congress, she was a CIA undercover counterterrorism agent recruiting spies in Europe. Her family didn’t know she worked at the Agency. The two are part of a national security cadre of Democratic women elected in 2018 who are known as “the badasses.” The other members are Representative Elissa Slotkin (CIA), Chrissy Houlahan (Air Force Academy), and Mikie Sherrill (Naval Academy).
Mothers in their 40s, Luria and Spanberger, are the kind of attractive figures with the potential to win higher office in Virginia, a state that cottons (or at least used to cotton) to moderates, including incumbent Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and Governor Ralph Northam. Both of the women are married and have kids. Spanberger was in law enforcement, working money laundering and narcotics cases with the U.S. Postal Service before joining the CIA. Luria, who grew up Jewish up in Alabama, once led a seder aboard the USS Enterprise with jets taking off overhead. By the end of her service, she commanded a combat-ready unit of 400 sailors.
But the Youngkin race has to be worrisome to this moderate duo. Youngkin carried their districts by double digits. The two were already at the top of the National Republican Campaign Committee’s hit list. While Luria and Spanberger had mastered the code of winning in GOP areas, the private equity mogul exceeded Trump’s numbers in rural, red counties. Youngkin didn’t do well enough in blue Washington DC suburbs to send a real scare into the likes of Democratic Representatives Jennifer Wexton, Don Beyer, and Gerry Connolly. For instance, Wexton unseated Republican Barbara Comstock in 2018 and won last year with 56 percent of the vote and McAuliffe carried her district. In 2020, Luria barely cleared 51 percent. Spanberger only got 50.8 percent.
Youngkin ran far ahead of Trump in their districts, suggesting a way for Republicans to win them. In Virginia’s Second District, which Luria holds, Biden won the city of Virginia Beach narrowly. Youngkin looks like he’ll carry it by eight points. Likewise with Northampton County in Luria’s district. Biden carried it by 11 points, and Youngkin took it narrowly. In Henrico County, in Spanberger’s district, Biden won it by 26 points. McAuliffe is carrying it by less than half that.
Of course, the 2022 midterms will have their own dynamic, and Virginia’s Democratic legislature will redraw congressional districts between now and next year. Still, there are reasons for Spanberger and Luria to worry. There’s the incumbent presidential party’s historic—but not certain—tendency to lose seats in the midterms. Biden’s poll figures, even in Virginia, a state he carried by 10 percent, are only in the 40s and an anvil around their necks if they don’t tick up. The difficulty Democrats are having getting bills passed isn’t exactly helping either, but maybe that too will change. Conversely, Spanberger and Luria had the wind at their backs in 2018 (a solid Democratic year) and in 2020 (when Trump dragged down Republicans across Virginia.) Now Virginia has seen a 12-or-13 point swing to the right from Biden’s 2020 victory to Youngkin’s 2021 triumph.
The upside for the two is that, hey, they’re not Terry McAuliffe, with his blunders, and they’re not Joe Biden with COVID-19 and other burdens of office on his shoulders. Luria and Spanberger have their own independent records to run on. Spanberger opposed Nancy Pelosi’s election as speaker. Luria has taken on her party for delaying the bipartisan infrastructure vote and broke with them for a bigger defense budget than Biden asked for. (Both were strong backers of impeaching Trump. Luria was a floor manager for the second impeachment.)
With the suburbs and suburban women in play, Luria and Spanberger can fight for them. And maybe things will trend the Democrats’ way: If Biden is doing better, if the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, if Democrats are passing bills, Spanberger and Luria could pull it out. And there are “X” factors, including the Supreme Court, which could overturn Roe next spring with the Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks, animating a pro-choice majority in the suburbs.
Still, the specter of Youngkin looms over Luria and Spanberger, his straddle of being Trumpy enough to fire up rural and conservative voters and aw-shucks enough to woo suburbanites. There’s his ability to inflame legitimate concerns about pedagogy and violence in schools with demagoguery. Suppose Luria and Spanberger are unfortunate enough to draw mini Youngkins. In that case, each might, ironically, want to consider running for Virginia governor in 2025 when state law requires Youngkin to vacate the seat.
An earlier version of this article misidentified Congresswoman Spanberger’s faith. She is Protestant, not Jewish. We regret the error.