WASHINGTON — A key group of House Democrats in swing seats elected Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.) on Tuesday to serve as the first dedicated representative to House Democratic leadership of members in contested “battleground” districts.
The bloc of 53 incumbents in “Frontline” seats and new members who either flipped GOP-held seats or won close general election fights picked Spanberger, a former CIA officer and moderate from the Richmond suburbs, for the House Democratic Caucus spot. She defeated Rep. Matt Cartwright, a progressive personal injury lawyer from northeast Pennsylvania, by a 33-20 margin.
Her victory is a win for cautious swing-seat members who believe she would more effectively represent their concerns about third-rail policy stances and messaging to leadership.
Spanberger, a member of the centrist Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions, emphasized her successful reelection bid in the most expensive general election in the House in the 2022 election cycle.
“With my district, I was the first Democrat elected since 1968. I didn’t take over a Democratic seat,” Spanberger told HuffPost on Monday.
Cartwright, by contrast, won his first race in a new seat in 2012, but the region that became part of his seat had been under Democratic control at the time.
“You’ve got a community that’s been voting for Republicans for 50 years. I come in talking about the things that matter to me and our Democratic colleagues,” Spanberger added. “That is an experience that is frankly shared by so many of our colleagues who have flipped seats and held on to them.”
Spanberger, who flipped a GOP-held seat in 2018, also benefited from her relationships with many of the newer members in swing seats.
Rep. Andy Kim (N.J.), a former State Department adviser in Afghanistan elected alongside Spanberger in 2018, cited his relationship with Spanberger and shared experience performing national service.
“We came up through this effort together and we’ve known each other since we both first started running. I have a real strong belief that that service mentality, that kind of approach is something that is incredibly powerful in these tough districts and is something I respect immensely.”
Rep. Pat Ryan (N.Y.), a former Army intelligence officer, who got to know Spanberger during an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2018, named a similar reason.
“It’s a personal relationship,” said Ryan, who won a special election in a Hudson Valley swing seat in August, and went on to become the only New York Democrat in a swing seat to survive in November. “We kind of came up in that group of 2018 national security vets.”
In a break with recent tradition, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) is due to select the next chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee himself, rather than put it up for a caucus-wide vote.
As a result, Spanberger is poised to serve in the sole campaign-oriented leadership role that is the product of an election by her fellow members of Congress. Spanberger, an emissary of members in districts that Democrats need to hold to retake their majority, stands to play an influential role in House Democratic Caucus politics ahead of the 2024 election cycle.
Spanberger was the favorite going into the vote on Tuesday. She developed a following among fellow moderate Democrats in swing states following the 2020 election when she blamed the “defund the police” slogan and other left-wing causes for Democrats’ disappointing performance during President Joe Biden’s presidential election.
Eight of Spanberger’s colleagues, who announced their support for her bid in a letter to other swing-seaters last Thursday, alluded to Spanberger’s willingness to take on the Democratic Party’s left flank.
“In Congress, Abigail has never been shy about voicing concerns, sharing perspectives from on the ground, and suggesting strategy or messaging improvements to Caucus Leadership to ensure we are in the best position to help our constituents, advance effective policies, and compete in the most competitive districts across the country,” wrote Reps. Susie Lee (Nev.), Jared Golden (Maine), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), Jennifer Wexton (Va.), Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), Annie Kuster (N.H.), Kim Schrier (Wash.) and Josh Gottheimer (N.J.).
Spanberger’s momentum continued on Monday when the leadership of the New Democrat Coalition, a business-friendly bloc, endorsed her. Members of that coalition, who include Ryan, make up a disproportionate number of the 53 representatives of “battleground” seats.
Spanberger is not a conservative outlier in the House Democratic Caucus. Unlike Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, she is a supporter of abortion rights. And unlike Rep. Scott Peters of California, she did not seek to water down a bill empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.
But her victory is nonetheless a disappointment for some economic populists who hoped that Cartwright, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and supporter of “Medicare for All,” would exhibit a more expansive, and less cautious, view of the kinds of stances that help “battleground” members win reelection.
Cartwright’s supporters also noted that he is one of just two House Democrats who survived in a district that Donald Trump carried twice. (The other Democrat, Golden, was elected in 2018, and thus, unlike Cartwright, was not on the same ballot as Trump in 2016.)
“Matt has done a heck of a job to hold a district Donald Trump has won twice,” Rep.-elect Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania told HuffPost on Monday. “And he’s done it running pretty boldly on, frankly, economic issues that resonate here in Pennsylvania ― standing up for workers and unions, fighting to bring our supply chains back home, calling out corporate power.”