For Democrats, one of the keys to winning control of the House of Representatives last year was convincing voters in formerly Republican districts that there’s more than one way to be a Democrat.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., was one of dozens of new members who ousted Republicans, in part on a pledge to buck party leaders and work across the aisle. Spanberger spent her first three months in office following through on that promise — she voted against Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House and split from Democrats on a number of procedural votes.
But constituents in her ideologically diverse district are still asking if her independence will stand firm as other more nationally recognized Democrats, like her House colleague New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and several Senate Democrats running for president in 2020 try to pull the party to the left ahead of the election in 2020.
Spanberger’s bipartisan credentials were a central issue for voters at a town hall in the Nottoway High School auditorium in rural Crewe, Va, a more conservative corner of her district.
“I’ve heard you talk a lot tonight about bipartisanship,” said a woman who identified herself as Sue Christian, a resident of Crewe.
Christian had questions on Spanberger’s stance on abortion rights and scandals surrounding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam who faced pressure to resign after a racist yearbook photo surfaced decades after he was in medical school. But she also wanted to know about Spanberger’s voting record.
“Have you ever voted against Nancy Pelosi?,” she asked. “And if so, on what?”
That’s a question Spanberger was ready for. The former CIA officer and first-time politician knew that once she defeated Republican Dave Brat to represent Virginia’s 7th Congressional District she’d have to defend her promise to work across the aisle pretty often.
“Yes,” she responded with a smile. “So I voted against Nancy Pelosi a couple of times. I did not vote for her to be speaker of the House.”
She went on to say she also voted with Republicans on a number of smaller bills — including an amendment to a gun bill that drew the ire and frustration of many of her progressive colleagues.
Spanberger also highlighted her work on the bipartisan “Problem Solvers” caucus and told voters that she was one of just a handful of Democrats invited to the White House in January to discuss border security with President Trump.
But that record has not been enough to completely inoculate her from questions about her role in a party that some voters see as moving steadily to the left. Over the course of the hour-long meeting, Spanberger fielded questions on Obamacare, President Trump’s push for a Southern border wall and some social issues.
Peter Hasso spoke up to challenge Spanberger on her position on Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. After the meeting he said Spanberger’s answers were pretty much what he expected, and he wasn’t convinced that she’s any different from other Democrats.
“I think unfortunately when people get it to Washington — they don’t call it the swamp for nothing,” Hasso said. “They get mired in it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Democrat or Republican, they get mired in the system.”
He says Democrats like Spanberger are getting drawn into a party that wants to go left — and specifically mentioned progressive members like Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Ocasio-Cortez, who he identified as socialists.
Hasso says Spanberger can’t support Omar and Ocasio-Cortez and still say she’s a different kind of Democrat.
“She’s riding both sides of the fence,” Hasso said. “And she’s trying not to be identified. I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t want to be identified with AOC and all of these other people.”
Spanberger says her record should speak for itself but her liberal colleagues are often the ones in the national spotlight passionately defending controversial policies like Medicare-for-all and the sweeping climate proposal known as the Green New Deal.
Their priorities, and not hers, have been setting the tone for what a lot of voters picture when they hear the label Democrat.
“I know what it’s like in my district,” Spanberger said after the town hall. “I would find it more helpful if other Democrats, when they talk about their districts would talk about their districts and the priorities of their districts so I don’t have to go back to my constituents and say ‘yes, I know that’s not you all.'”
Centrists like Spanberger have at times faced intense criticism from some liberal members, like Ocasio-Cortez, particularly after they voted with Republicans to pass a procedural motion that Democrats hoped to block.
That led to threats from progressives that they would get activists to target moderates to try to sway their votes.
“I can have colleagues threaten me as much as they like,” Spanberger said. “I’m going to continue serving my district in a way I think is important. And I’m going to continue serving in Congress in a way I think is important. And that doesn’t mean falling in line on every single vote.”
Hasso and some other voters here aren’t moved by that argument at all.
But others, like Billy Coleburn, the mayor of the nearby town of Blackstone, say they’ve really been impressed by Spanberger’s willingness to stand up to Pelosi and to come out and talk to voters at town halls like this. And Coleburn wants to be clear he’s not exactly a Democrat.
“I am one who voted for Donald Trump,” Coleburn said. “I was an obnoxious Trump supporter in 2015 from the minute he got off the elevator, not because he was so good looking or eloquent, but because I wanted to put the middle finger to the establishment.”
But now, he could see himself voting a split ticket, Trump/Spanberger in 2020, provided Spanberger keeps voting independently.
“As someone who still believes in Trump’s policies, I have a lot of respect for Abigail Spanberger,” Coleburn said. “We’ve talked, we’ve joked about that.”