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Congressional Democrats are hoping that a giant bill filled with their domestic priorities will boost their success in next year's elections. But their agenda did not help them in this month's Virginia elections, where Republicans dominated. Now some congressional districts in Virginia become battlegrounds. NPR's Barbara Sprunt brings us this report from the suburbs of Richmond.
BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: At a bustling local pub in Chesterfield County, a group of voters are ordering burgers and pimento cheese fries and talking about the Democrats' Build Back Better agenda.
LINDSAY SHERRARD: And I think universal pre-K's a good idea.
YAEL LEVIN: Tax credit are fantastic. I love tax credit because that gives the choice back to people.
SPRUNT: Universal pre-K and the expanded child tax credit - both staples of the Democrats proposed spending package. But this is not a Democratic event. It's a meet-and-greet for supporters of Tina Ramirez, one of at least seven Republicans vying to challenge incumbent Democratic congresswoman Abigail Spanberger. In short, they might like some of these policies but not enough to vote for a Democrat. Ramirez says that's because by and large voters don't support increased government spending.
TINA RAMIREZ: I think there's a real feeling in this state in particular, you know, this idea that government knows best or that government's the answer to everything. People are just fed up.
SPRUNT: Chesterfield County makes up the largest part of this district, which spans across central Virginia and includes large portions of the Richmond suburbs. It's swung from Trump to Biden and most recently to Republican Glenn Youngkin for governor. Yael Levin, a Ramirez supporter, is an independent and says inflation is on the top of her mind.
LEVIN: The gas prices are killing me. I feed two teenage boys who play soccer, so my grocery bills have literally skyrocketed.
SPRUNT: For Carmen Williams, it's what she calls critical race theory in public schools that's a main concern. The theory examines institutions through the lens of race and racism. It's used in graduate-level studies, but Republican messaging has turned it into a culture war issue, contending it's in K-12 schools and is dividing children by race. Here's Williams.
CARMEN WILLIAMS: Kids, when they go to school, they want to learn. And white people shouldn't say, oh, I am white; I am bad, or you are Black; you are minority; you cannot do better than that (ph).
SPRUNT: Lindsay Sherrard, a white mother of two, says conservative principles still resonate in the county.
SHERRARD: I think Virginia voters just really came against so many woke policies, if you want to call it that, too, like just the constant focus on race and the constant focus on transgender issues. We want to just go back to the basics.
SPRUNT: She suspects the county's flip from Trump to Biden wasn't about policies, but Trump himself.
SHERRARD: I still voted for Trump because I like his policies. But the man is crazy, and I think a lot of people felt like he was not a dignified leader of our country.
SPRUNT: Twenty miles north in Henrico County, the blue heart of the district, Monica Hutchinson says the retreat of white women who voted for Biden back to the GOP is frustrating.
MONICA HUTCHINSON: It is easier for suburban white women to flip 'cause they don't have to actually live with the consequences of a lot of these issues that are directly impacting families like mine.
SPRUNT: Hutchinson, a community organizer and lifelong Democrat, says the angry debate over the teaching of race in schools is exasperating, especially as a Black mother.
HUTCHINSON: When I hear suburban white moms say, well, I think my child's too young to learn about racism, I'm like, hello. The counter to that is simple. My child has to experience racism, right? We don't get the luxury of saying, oh, my child's too young.
SPRUNT: She supports the Democratic agenda but says, politically, the party has a big problem.
HUTCHINSON: We have always been horrible at messaging, right? They're fighting so hard that they're also forgetting to come out and let the people know what they're doing.
SPRUNT: Lorah Vizdos, also of Henrico County, agrees that Democrats need to go on the offense.
LORAH VIZDOS: They're too busy playing defense and trying to be nice. We go high. Stop it because this culture war is not going to end because you refuse to participate.
SPRUNT: She wishes Democrats had passed their trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill earlier so they could have campaigned on it this year and says the party's messaging going forward should be simple.
VIZDOS: The guy who's running against me voted against this. It's not hard. It's not rocket science. You don't need special words or an interpretive dance or anything. Just say it.
ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: I think she's exactly right.
SPRUNT: That's Spanberger. She says improving messaging is one thing, but perhaps the more challenging task is reaching constituents like the folks at the burger joint who, despite supporting pieces of their policies, say they won't vote for a Democrat next year.
SPANBERGER: I know that people who see themselves as Republicans see the value in the child tax credit. They see it in their own lives. But sometimes our political labels can be blinding.
SPRUNT: Whether Democrats like Spanberger can reconcile that divide could be the difference between maintaining control of the house next year or getting washed away in a red wave.
Barbara Sprunt, NPR News.
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