How Ukraine Figures in Last-Minute Midterm Pitches

Ahead of tomorrow’s polls, foreign policy looms large in a Virginia district seen as a bellwether for national trends.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger speaks to constituents outside of an early-voting location in Woodbridge, Virginia.
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger speaks to constituents outside of an early-voting location in Woodbridge, Virginia.
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger speaks to constituents outside of an early-voting location during the midterm election cycle in Woodbridge, Virginia, on Nov. 4. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

A Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot in Woodbridge, Virginia, isn’t the sort of place you’d expect to see U.S. lawmakers talking about things like Ukraine or the expansion of NATO.

But that’s just what happened in the final days of the midterm election cycle, when Rep. Abigail Spanberger made a stop at a polling station normally used for residents to renew their driver’s licenses. The incumbent Democratic centrist in Virginia’s 7th District used that time, in part, to tout her support for U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

“My opponent disagrees with me on the importance of supporting our allies,” Spanberger said in the parking lot, surrounded by a small group of supporters as early voters streamed in and out of the polling station to cast their ballots. “While I have been pushing to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs to win this war, my opponent has staunchly opposed aid to Ukraine.”

A Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot in Woodbridge, Virginia, isn’t the sort of place you’d expect to see U.S. lawmakers talking about things like Ukraine or the expansion of NATO.

But that’s just what happened in the final days of the midterm election cycle, when Rep. Abigail Spanberger made a stop at a polling station normally used for residents to renew their driver’s licenses. The incumbent Democratic centrist in Virginia’s 7th District used that time, in part, to tout her support for U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

“My opponent disagrees with me on the importance of supporting our allies,” Spanberger said in the parking lot, surrounded by a small group of supporters as early voters streamed in and out of the polling station to cast their ballots. “While I have been pushing to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs to win this war, my opponent has staunchly opposed aid to Ukraine.”

Polls show that Spanberger, a former CIA case officer, has a razor-thin lead over her Trumpist Republican challenger, Yesli Vega, an auxiliary deputy in the county sheriff’s office in Virginia’s Prince William County. In a hotly contested midterm election cycle, the race between the two is one of the most competitive, expensive, and closely watched nationally. Each campaign and party political action committee has dropped some $26 million into the race.

The race in Virginia’s 7th is a litmus test for how well Democrats can endure a projected surge of voter support for Republicans. It’s also an early indicator of how much staying power the Trumpist flank of the Republican Party has among independent voters in battleground states.

And it’s a microcosm of how foreign-policy issues are influencing the midterms—even as they take a back seat to other pressing issues such as the economy, health care, and abortion.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, and Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined Spanberger to speak to voters and reporters. They touched on Russia’s war in Ukraine, NATO expansion, and competition with China as much as the economy, inflation, and prospects of government shutdowns should Republicans take back a majority in Congress. (Vega’s campaign did not respond to Foreign Policy’s request to interview her for this story.)

“People in our district typically understand that the Russians are not going to stop with Ukraine, and that if Ukrainians are not able to win this war of aggression, win this war on their own terms, then the problem doesn’t go away,” Spanberger said. “It gets to Poland’s borders, then it is a catastrophe of another level.”

The new lines of the district moved it north, containing swathes of both more left-leaning Washington exurbs and right-leaning rural areas. In its previous borders, Virginia’s 7th was a key swing district in the state. Former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor represented the district for over a decade before it went blue in 2018, Spanberger’s first election. Spanberger won by a narrow margin in both 2018 and 2020, getting 50.3 percent then 50.9 percent of the vote, respectively.

Vega, Spanberger’s opponent, is the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador and would be Virginia’s first Latina elected to Congress if she beats out Spanberger. Vega, who aligned herself closely with former President Donald Trump, defeated establishment Republicans to win the party’s nomination in the primaries and has campaigned on curbing inflation, parental rights, crime, and what she calls President Biden’s “foreign policy blunders.”

Unlike other Trump Republicans, Vega has conceded her party’s election defeat in 2020, telling the Washington Post that the “American people elected [Biden]”—after initially refusing to directly answer the question. Still, she has defended the Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by saying they were “exercising their First Amendment rights.”

The outcome of the election in this Northern Virginia district is widely viewed as a harbinger for how well or poorly Democrats will fare in the midterms across the country. Republicans taking control of either the House of Representatives or Senate (or both) could throw wrenches into Biden’s foreign-policy agenda with increased oversight, investigations, and scrutiny on issues like U.S. support for the war in Ukraine, bogged-down efforts to revive an Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the country’s climate change policies.

Recent polls show that across the country, the economy, cost of living, immigration and border control, and abortion are the leading issues that voters care about in the run-up to the midterms. Spanberger’s district in Northern Virginia, though, is home to a sizable proportion of the country’s national security workforce. Many political analysts say that Republicans also have a slight edge across the country going into the midterms after recent rounds of redrawing congressional district lines gave them slight advantages in battleground states.

Speaking to voters and reporters, Spanberger hammered home her national security credentials, including her time as a CIA case officer working on counterterrorism. “Much of my national security work in Congress has focused on working with both parties to respond to emerging threats,” she said.

The Democrats have taken a political beating on the domestic front with inflation, surging energy prices, and looming fears of a recession, as well as on the foreign-policy front after the debacle of Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and an increasing number of voters questioning Biden’s decision to send billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to Ukraine to aid its war against Russia.

While a bulk of Republican lawmakers support sending military aid to Ukraine, a small but vocal faction of Trump Republicans are increasingly speaking out against it, and Republican voters across the country are starting to agree. A new poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal found that 48 percent of Republicans now believe the United States is doing too much to help Ukraine, up from 6 percent from a poll in March, shortly after the war broke out.

Moreover, Biden’s chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal punched holes in one of his most persuasive pitches to voters in the 2020 elections: that he was the careful, competent statesman who could restore the United States’ credibility on the world stage after the Trump era.

The last time Biden held an aggregate approval rating in the polls above 50 percent was the same day Kabul fell to the Taliban—Aug. 15—according to data from the RealClearPolitics polling average, and Republicans have seized on the botched withdrawal in campaign ads targeting swing elections in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

“Watching our departure from Afghanistan become such a difficult, quick decline in the country was absolutely heartbreaking, and that was real for many people certainly throughout our district, certainly across the country,” Spanberger said.

“There’s also the reality that President Biden, the United States, did what ultimately we said we were going to do, which was exit Afghanistan in what had otherwise commonly started to be called a ‘forever war.’”

Democrats had high hopes in the months leading up to the midterms, banking on an energized voting base after the Supreme Court overturned abortion rights and a more stable economy recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. But Republicans appear to have made more inroads with voters in the final stretch of the midterm election cycle by hammering Biden on inflation and rising energy prices, which they blame on Biden’s massive spending bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, and pushing up energy prices by seeking to cut U.S. domestic production of oil and gas.

At the event in the DMV parking lot, Spanberger’s political backers tried to tie some of the country’s economic woes to the world of foreign policy. “We have inflation because there’s a war going on in Ukraine, and there are two big factors that we don’t control,” said Connolly, citing grain exports and oil and gas—both fields in which Russia is a world leader. On the economy, Connolly said, “We don’t have anything to be apologetic for. We have a lot to be proud of.”

Tomorrow’s results will tell whether voters agree.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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