Rep. Abigail Spanberger Faces Questions As Progressives Democrats Dominate Rep. Abigail Spanberger's bipartisan credentials were a central issue for voters at a recent town hall. The freshman lawmaker beat a Republican incumbent in an ideologically diverse Virginia district.

Moderate Democrats Under Pressure As Party's Left Grabs Attention

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The most famous of all the newly elected Democrats in the House of Representatives is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist. But she is only one of the 235 lawmakers who make up the Democratic majority. And that is equally true of Abigail Spanberger, newly elected from central Virginia. To keep control of the House, Democrats must hold more conservative districts like hers.

NPR's Kelsey Snell attended a town hall meeting in the town of Crewe, Va.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Have you ever voted against Nancy Pelosi? And if so, on what?

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: That's a question Spanberger is ready for. The former CIA officer and first-time politician knew that once she defeated Republican Dave Brat to represent this district, she'd have to defend her promise to work across the aisle pretty often.


ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: Yes. So I voted against Nancy Pelosi a couple times. I did not vote for her to be speaker of the House.

SNELL: She also voted with Republicans on an amendment to a gun bill and 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 isn't enough to stave off questions about her role in a party that some voters see as moving steadily to the left.

Over the course of an hour, Spanberger fielded questions on Obamacare, President Trump's border wall and her stance on abortion rights. Voters like Peter Hasso aren't convinced that she can be so independent in a party that's also home to far-left progressives like Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

PETER HASSO: She's riding both sides of the fence. And she's trying not to be identified, but I don't blame her. I wouldn't want to be identified with AOC and all these other people.

SNELL: 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 bill 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.

SPANBERGER: I know what it's like in my district. And 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 that I don't have to go back to my constituents and say, yes, I know that's not you all.

SNELL: Some liberal members like Ocasio-Cortez have gone further, threatening to target moderates like Spanberger if they don't move further to the left. Spanberger doesn't have any patience for that.

SPANBERGER: So I can have colleagues threaten me as much as they like, but I'm going to continue serving my district in the way that I think is important. And I'm going to continue serving in Congress in a way that I think is important. And that does not mean falling in line on every single vote.

SNELL: Hasso and 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 been really 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.

BILLY COLEBURN: I am one who voted for Donald Trump. And I was an obnoxious Trump supporter in 2015 the minute he got off the escalator, not because I loved him or because he was so good looking or eloquent but because I wanted to put the middle finger at the establishment.

SNELL: But now he could see himself voting a split ticket - Trump-Spanberger in 2020.

COLEBURN: As still someone who believes in Trump's policies, I have a lot of respect for Abigail Spanberger. We talked. We joked about that.

SNELL: That said, voters here say they're waiting to see what policies Democrats support between now and then. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Crewe, Va.

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