There is little doubt that the race between 7th District Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger and challenger Nick Freitas is one of the more closely-watched races in the country on this fall’s election ballot.
Look no further than a recent news report that more money has been spent on the Congressional race than the two presidential campaigns have spent in the entire state of Virginia. The amount spent on advertising for the 7th District race was more than $11 million as of early October, according to Capital News Service.
Spanberger, a Democrat, is facing her first challenge since she won a narrow victory over Republican Dave Brat in 2018. This year’s race has featured some of the same issues that were prominent then, including taxes, health care and broadband.
Spanberger and Freitas have tried to distinguish themselves in different ways, with Freitas emphasizing his support for the free market, for instance, while Spanberger touts ways the federal government can intervene to achieve better market outcomes.
Spanberger has focused on her efforts to be bipartisan, citing a number of bills she introduced with Republican cosponsors. She pointed to her visit to the White House to work with the United States trade representative on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaced the NAFTA trade deal.
The congresswoman is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 50 representatives split evenly between the two parties. The caucus recently drafted a framework for a new coronavirus stimulus bill that earned some support from Congressional leaders, though it hasn’t passed. The group also helped pass an extension for the 9/11 Victims Fund, she said.
“It’s a great place to talk about why someone would oppose something, and how I can garner additional support,” Spanberger said. “It allows us to make good policy, and also allows me to better understand the varying ideologies across the district I represent.”
Freitas points to the congresswoman’s record of voting regularly with the Democratic majority in the House, which he says disproves her claim to be bipartisan.
“I don’t think she can call herself a moderate, unless that term just has no objective meaning anymore,” he said.
As a member for the past five years of the Virginia House of Delegates, Freitas said he has established his own bipartisan record. He cited bills he sponsored and worked with Democrats to pass, like one that restricted courts from taking people’s property through civil asset forfeiture.
“The most important thing is that we get good policy,” he said. “Unfortunately what we see a lot in D.C. is these huge omnibus bills and they tack on little things here and there to entice people to vote for it, even though it’s not good policy. In the General Assembly we can’t do that. We have one-issue-per-bill rules. So when we work together to develop bipartisan solutions, it’s because neither side is forced to violate their principles.”
Taxes and the economy
Spanberger has been a critic of the 2017 tax reform bill since before she was elected. She said that the bill’s corporate tax cuts have not yielded meaningful results for working people.
“The majority of those [companies] did not pass on any of those tax savings to their employees,” she said. “The percentage of employees who saw any bump in their salaries was minuscule compared to the buybacks and investments the companies were able to make themselves.”
The other major component of the tax bill was individual tax cuts, but they will expire in 2025, Spanberger noted, unlike the permanent corporate reductions. Some other tax breaks in the bill will expire as soon as the end of this year. She has been working to renew a tax cut that benefits craft brewers in the district.
“When you look at the margins that some of our breweries have, that increase would be business-ending for some of them,” she said. The House is likely to take action on extending that tax cut after the election.
Freitas disagrees that the tax bill didn’t lead to benefits for workers. He said it created jobs and cut regulations that had stifled small businesses.
“It allowed companies here to be able to expand operations, and I think that’s beneficial for everyone,” Freitas said.
He said he would like to see all of the tax cuts be made permanent, and wants to see a flat tax as the next step in tax reform. With a flat tax, taxes are calculated as a fixed percentage of one’s income, unlike the current system in which the tax rate changes with different income brackets.
Spanberger and Freitas differ sharply on the merits of government intervention in the health care system. Spanberger supports Medicare X, which is the bill to allow people to choose a public option rather than a private plan. The option would build on the framework of the existing Medicare program, using the program’s network of providers and guaranteeing benefits included in the Affordable Care Act.
“Since we wouldn’t be paying CEO salaries and large-scale advertising budgets and the rest, it would be a highly competitive option,” Spanberger said. “It would drive down costs and ensure everyone has coverage, so they’re not showing up in emergency rooms because they lack health insurance.”
Freitas has voted in the House of Delegates to allow short-term insurance plans that don’t include benefits in the Affordable Care Act, including coverage for pre-existing conditions.
“Should a person be able to buy a plan that doesn’t cover certain things? My answer is yes,” he said. “It is not my job to tell someone they can’t buy something that meets their family’s needs.”
However, he said that if the ACA is repealed by Congress or struck down by the Supreme Court, he would support a bill to “keep in place” protections for pre-existing conditions.
Spanberger has focused her efforts on trying to bring down the cost of prescription drugs. One of two bills she introduced that have passed the House is a bill to force pharmacy benefits managers, considered middlemen between pharmaceutical makers and drug stores, to be more transparent about how prices are set. She also supported a bill to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
Freitas opposed a bill in the House of Delegates to cap the price of insulin for diabetics. He called it a “price-fixing” bill.
“If you attempt to fix prices, products leave the market,” he said. “It’s not going to achieve the result they want. The reason why insulin is so expensive is that the [Food and Drug Administration] has set up an incredibly difficult process. It can take seven years for a drug to be approved.”
He said rather than require insurance companies to cover certain services, the government should try to reduce prices by cutting regulations. That has happened to some extent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, he noted, with governments allowing more use of telemedicine and other services that weren’t available before.
Spanberger recognized quickly that the number one issue for the rural parts of the 7th District is broadband internet. She held a broadband town hall at Louisa County High School early in her term; later she returned to the county to announce a $28 million grant and loan for a Central Virginia Electric Cooperative subsidiary to provide broadband. She said she had pushed to restore the funding to budget legislation after the Senate removed it.
Freitas said he sees a role for government in helping to expand broadband access, such as expediting the process to obtain permits from the Virginia Department of Transportation.
He said while he voted against a bill to allow broadband providers or utilities to access other companies’ easements on property rights grounds, he likes the idea of making it easier to use easements. He also touted Orange County’s plan to build a broadband network on the back of its public safety infrastructure.
“What I don’t want to see is a plan that puts government in charge of our internet. I don’t want them setting prices or determining what quality looks like,” he said.