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Midterm elections: If this seat flips red, Republicans will have 'probably won a relatively comfortable House majority'

By Victor Reklaitis

U.S. House race in northern Virginia, rated as leaning Democratic, is between two women who both have law-enforcement experience and haven't been living within the redrawn district's new boundaries

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (MarketWatch) -- Holding a "Yesli Vega for Congress" sign for his lawn that he just picked up from one of the Virginia Republican's campaign offices, Clinton Melson says he and his wife plan to vote for her because of their concerns about schools, inflation and defense.

"We're all about education because we have grandchildren, and we just think that the Republican Party in general and Vega in particular are better for education," said Melson, a retired resident of Virginia's Stafford County, which lies just north of Fredericksburg.

"They've figured out that the schools are drifting into subjects that really don't benefit the kids in the long run," he told MarketWatch, making a similar point as other GOP-leaning voters have amid a national debate over how much K-12 schools should teach about race and sex. "They need to stick with the basics in education."

Related:Youngkin says his win in Virginia governor's race shows going on the offensive on schools works for Republicans

Melson, who worked for the Defense Department before retiring, said he's also supporting the GOP challenger rather than incumbent Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger because he thinks Republicans are traditionally better on defense (ITA) issues -- and because the U.S. can't stay on its current path with inflation "through the roof" and hurting retirees.

Read MarketWatch's coverage of U.S. inflation.

The battle between Spanberger and Vega to represent Virginia's newly redrawn Seventh Congressional District is among the competitive midterm contests that analysts are watching closely.

Republicans are aiming to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate from Democrats in November's midterm elections, and betting market PredictIt gives a 74% chance for a House flip, but just 40% odds for the Senate changing hands. The outcomes for the midterms will determine the extent to which the GOP can shake up President Joe Biden's agenda, such as by providing aggressive oversight of the Biden administration's regulators or taking action on issues such as the child tax credit or crime. A first-term president's party tends to lose congressional ground in the midterms.

The Seventh Congressional District sits in northern Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. After a redistricting last year by court-appointed special masters, it consists of the city of Fredericksburg and nearby counties, such as Stafford, Spotsylvania, Culpeper and Orange, as well as a chunk of Prince William County, while no longer including parts of the Richmond area where Spanberger lives.

It's rated as leaning Democratic by both the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and the Cook Political Report, though Cook had ranked it as a "toss-up" until Sept. 1. In switching its rating, Cook cited "a post-Dobbs spike in Democratic voter enthusiasm," referring to the Supreme Court's June decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that established a constitutional right to an abortion.

"As our Leans Democratic rating implies, we'd choose Spanberger if we had to pick a winner, but she's not out of the woods yet. There are still about two months left until Election Day," said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor for Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Things have seemed on the upswing for Democrats, with their party jumping ahead in a key indicator that's known as the generic ballot, but there may be time for things to shift back to the GOP, he told MarketWatch.

"If Republicans beat Spanberger, they've probably won a relatively comfortable House majority," Coleman said, adding that means a majority perhaps in the range of 230 to 240 seats. He noted that Biden carried the new district by a 7-point margin in 2020, but then Republican Glenn Youngkin won it by a 5-point margin in the 2021 governor's race.

Issues: Mar-a-Lago search, Roe and more

Cliff Heinzer, who chairs the Stafford County Democratic Committee, said he's been knocking on voters' doors and gets the sense that fuel prices were "an issue for a while," but "they don't seem to be much of an issue now." Gasoline prices have dropped by well over $1 after the U.S. average peaked in June above $5 a gallon.

Instead, women voters often want to confirm that Spanberger supports abortion rights, and some residents talk about the FBI's search last month of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home as part of an investigation into whether the former president took classified records, according to Heinzer. He has worked for the federal government, including on Defense Department contracts, and noted that many other locals have that type of experience, given the area's proximity to Washington.

"A lot of folks, myself included, spent lots of time meticulously making sure that we secured classified information, so that resonates a little more loudly in Stafford than it might in another community," he said of the Mar-a-Lago search. Heinzer added that transportation issues, such as congestion on I-95, are crucial for the district, but achieving solutions is often challenging and requires a regional effort.

Tonya James, who chairs the Prince William County Democrats, said she's also often finding voters are concerned about abortion rights, including men "because their kids and their grandkids and possibly their spouses could be impacted."

"A lot of what I'm hearing at the doors as I talk to voters is about the right to choose," said James, who is helping to campaign for Spanberger but lives in part of Prince William County that's not in the Seventh Congressional District.

Meanwhile, Steve Mouring, who chairs the Culpeper County Republican Committee, said he's seen the Mar-a-Lago search affecting voters, but in a different way. On the night that news broke about the FBI's move, part of the GOP committee tried to start a meeting at their headquarters building, but got delayed as locals who support Trump showed up after hearing the news.

"We had to wait like 45 minutes to start a meeting, because so many people were coming up -- wanting to sign up, wanting to get signs and things like that," Mouring told MarketWatch. He also said: "People cannot believe that a former president was being treated that way."

When asked about issues in the race, Spanberger said in a statement that lowering prescription-drug costs often comes up with voters, and that's why she supported the Inflation Reduction Act, which gives Medicare the power to negotiate drug (PJP) prices.

She also said she's "been ringing the alarm bell about inflation for nearly a year" and has aimed to fix U.S. supply chains by introducing a bipartisan bill that would provide a new tax incentive to attract and retain truck drivers.

Related:Lobbyist for truckers on the 'driver shortage': 'If the job that you're offering sucks, is the solution really go find more suckers, or should you improve the job?'

Regarding the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe and the aftermath, the two-term congresswoman said West Virginia has become the second U.S. state to pass stringent abortion restrictions, so "Virginians can feel these bans coming closer to home, which is why I have voted with majorities in the U.S. House to codify a woman's right to choose, defend access to contraception and ensure interstate travel for reproductive care."

Vega's campaign didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. In an interview last month with Fox News at a Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) event in Texas, she said a survey of Prince William County residents found that the top issue for residents was having a safe and secure community.

"So for me personally, ensuring that we provide that to our constituents is paramount," she said, adding that other priorities for her are getting a handle on the "chaos" at the U.S.-Mexico border, the historic inflation that's hitting the country and wasteful spending.

'Compelling' challenger vs. 'populisty, bipartisan' incumbent

Vega has "an uplifting personal biography," said Coleman from the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

She's the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants who became a police officer, then a sheriff's deputy, and currently serves on Prince William County's Board of Supervisors.

One challenge for Vega, Coleman said, is she had a sort of "Todd Akin moment," referring to the Missouri politician criticized in 2012 for saying that victims of "legitimate rape" typically don't get pregnant.

In Vega's case, she played down the likelihood of becoming pregnant as a result of rape. As her comment drew media attention in June, she said: "Liberals are desperate to distract from their failed agenda of record high gas and grocery prices and skyrocketing crime."

Spanberger also has law-enforcement experience, having worked on narcotics and money-laundering cases for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service before becoming a CIA officer. And she has perhaps a "populisty, bipartisan image," according to Coleman, thanks in part to efforts such as her work with Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy on a bill that would ban members of Congress from trading stocks.

Related:It's crunch time for the push to ban Congress from trading stocks

"The national environment may be Spanberger's biggest challenge -- Biden's approval ratings are generally not positive, and inflation is still a leading issue," the University of Virginia expert said.

Rosalyn Cooperman, a political science professor and department chair at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said Vega is "a very compelling candidate, in many regards," who has "captivated the attention of national Republicans" in part because of her background as a Latina and law-enforcement officer.

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