Abigail Spanberger caught in delicate balance of advancing policy agenda and ensuring Trump is held accountable
At a middle school auditorium three hours south of the capital, where an intensifying impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump consumes all aspects of political life, the Virginia congresswoman Abigail Spanberger greeted a restive crowd of constituents with a PowerPoint presentation on the American system of government.
The freshman Democrat, a political moderate who flipped a long-held Republican seat by promising to be an independent check on the president, had prepared a lesson in American civics for her audience, the eighth-grade class of Tomahawk Creek middle school. But it did not escape the congresswoman that some of her colleagues in Washington could also benefit from the tutorial.
If you read the constitution and its a very simple read, I recommend it, she urged the students. Its pretty amazing that its so clear.
Spanberger clicked through several slides explaining the three branches of government and the constitutional separation of powers. She spoke about her responsibilities as a member of the House of Representatives and showed them a clip of her maiden speech on the House floor. When she put up a photograph of herself at their age, the students shrieked with laughter.
Impeachment came up only once, obliquely, in reference to Congresss authority to provide oversight over the executive branch.
That is far from the reality in Washington, where the Democratic impeachment inquiry is now unfurling at a rapid pace, spawning a daily flood of shocking headlines, shout-fest cable news segments and bellicose statements from politicians on both sides of the partisan divide.
The political fury over impeachment leaves Democrats like Spanberger, who represent the most evenly split districts in the country, caught in a delicate balancing act as they try to advance a policy agenda focused on issues such as healthcare, infrastructure and education while ensuring that Trump is held accountable in the wake of allegations that he sought to enlist a foreign government for help smearing his political rivals.
Whether these Democrats succeed in their mission could determine their fate and that of the House majority in 2020.
If Im not willing to lose my seat over issues of principle then what am I doing here? Spanberger said earlier this month. Im here to serve the people of Virginia. Im here to fight for legislation thats going to help people, improve our economy, create greater opportunity, strengthen our schools and make our communities safer. Im also here to uphold the constitution.
For months, Spanberger, who served in the CIA as a covert officer before running for Congress last year, stubbornly resisted calls from progressives and her more liberal colleagues to impeach Trump.
Even in the wake of a special counsel report that outlined 10 instances of alleged obstruction of justice by the president, Spanberger was not moved.
But after the emergence of a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine this summer on the condition that its newly elected leader provide damaging information on Democratic presidential frontrunner, Joe Biden, Spanberger saw no other choice.
On 23 September, she joined six first-term Democrats all centrists bonded by their military and national security experience to call for a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump. Writing in the Washington Post, they said the Ukraine allegations against Trump, if proven, are a threat to all we have sworn to protect and represent an impeachable offense.
Their decision fraught with political risk was not political, the authors wrote, explaining: Everything we do harks back to our oaths to defend the country.
Less than 24-hours after reading the op-ed on a flight to Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, declared a formal inquiry. By the end of the week, nearly every House Democrat enough to impeach Trump supported the move.
I took a public stand on something that I think is an issue of constitutionality and of principle, she said. My opponents can attack me for it as much as they like but I know theres a lot of people who respect that Im acting on those principles. And frankly there are a lot of people who elected me to demonstrate integrity.
For several Democrats, especially those in battleground districts, their first visits home in the days after the inquiry launched revealed a nation deeply divided over the president, his conduct and his character.
The Michigan congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat who co-authored the Washington Post op-ed, was met with applause and protests as she defended her choice to support an impeachment inquiry at crowded town halls. The Virginia congresswoman Elaine Luria, also a signatory, received a similar reception. The Illinois congressman Sean Casten held a series of six back-to-back town hall meetings to make his case for an inquiry.
The national mood has hardly softened since, even as public support for the impeachment inquiry has grown considerably.
Over the past month, a parade of witnesses, former and current career civil servants and political appointees, have defied White House efforts to block their cooperation with the inquiry to testify before the investigating committees on Capitol Hill.
They have collectively painted a devastating picture of Trumps effort to extract political help from Ukrainian officials. This week, political tensions erupted in theatrical fashion when dozens of Republicans stormed a secure room in the basement of the US Capitol where a crucial witness was due to testify to protest the private nature of the proceedings.
Since coming out in favor of an impeachment inquiry, Spanberger, who sits on the House foreign affairs committee, one of three panels investigating the Ukraine scandal, said she has received a number of texts and emails praising her for holding the president accountable and for her tempered and measured approach.
Many of the angriest calls to her office, she said, have not come from constituents but voters outside of her central Virginia district.
In 2016, Trump won Spanbergers district by six percentage points. Two years later, the political novice ended decades of Republican control of the district, narrowly defeating Dave Brat, the incumbent Tea Party conservative who arrived in Congress in 2014 after toppling then House majority leader Eric Cantor.
The close race makes the district one of the top Republican targets this cycle as Republican challengers line up for the chance to win back the seat next year. They hope the Republican and independent voters who migrated to Spanberger in 2018 will punish her for supporting a polarizing impeachment investigation into the president.
The Republican National Committee is already running an ad attacking Spanberger by claiming that she has sided with the radicals in her caucus to support endless investigations of President Trump. The 30-second clip features images of Pelosi, and the progressive congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who memorably called on Congress to impeach the motherfucker.
As it becomes increasingly likely that the House will move forward with articles of impeachment, Spanberger says she will reserve judgement until the House concludes its investigation.
Before I would ever say yay or nay on the principle of impeachment, I would want to have a conversation with my colleagues about what articles would actually be put forth, she said. Theres been articles put forth in the past that I havent supported.
Until then, she says she intends to approach the remainder of her two-year term in much the same way: focused on the issues that matter to her constituents, such as education, healthcare and trade.
She plans to introduce new legislation to lower the cost of generic prescription drugs and has no reservations about running for re-election on her record of policy accomplishments.
I feel fully confident in the decisions that Ive made, she said. I am proud of the decisions that Ive made.