Virus Politics and Trump’s Shadow Complicate GOP Hopes in Virginia’s 7th District

Before the novel coronavirus took over much of our daily lives, Republicans in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District were concentrated on ousting incumbent Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D).

Is that a reasonable hope? I asked Randolph-Macon College professor Lauren Bell for her insights.

In an email, Bell said it’s not surprising Republicans think the 7th is “their best chance of picking up a House seat.”

Remember: Spanberger narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Dave Brat in 2018 after outspending him more than 2-1.

The reason it was so close Bell said, is even after court-ordered redistricting, the 7th “remains a Republican district.”

The Cook Political Report sees the general election contest as a toss-up. Sabato’s Crystal Ball has it at “leans Democratic.”

Bell is less optimistic about the GOP’s chances to retake the District in November.

Republicans still need to pick a nominee from among the six candidates running for the honor. They were going to do so in an April 25 convention, but restrictions on large group gatherings make that impossible. District GOP leaders are mulling the options for how to proceed.

Bell said conventions “typically result in more ideologically extreme candidates winning the nomination.” That would hurt GOP chances in suburban Henrico and Chesterfield counties where “Democrats have won successively greater numbers of votes over the last several election cycles and where Spanberger herself did particularly well in 2018.”

Whoever gets the GOP nomination, through whatever means, will have to raise a lot of money to meet the new realities of campaigning in the age of the coronavirus.

According to year-end campaign finance reports, Spanberger has raised more than $2.6 million — 10 times the amount of the leading GOP fundraiser, Tina Ramirez. While those numbers are likely to change substantially, how much money any of the candidates is likely to raise in the current economic environment is unknown.

What else is unknown is how the campaigns will be conducted. Bell said the coronavirus has turned “campaigning on its head,” eliminating such traditional voter contact strategies as door-to-door canvassing, campaign rallies, phone banking and most in-person fundraising.

Bell said the campaigns will rely much more on direct mail and television to get their messages out (you’ve been warned). Both options are expensive. Spanberger’s current haul may give her an advantage in mobilizing such an effort. Closing that gap will be a top GOP priority once the nominee is chosen.

Bell also says one important quirk about running for Congress in the 7th District is voters’ expectation that the incumbent will be “present and engaged” back home. So far, Bell thinks Spanberger has lived up to that expectation, which will “serve her well” in the general election.

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