“If your words are ‘defund the police,’ they’re going to think you mean that. And they know the world is on fire,” she said after the police visit, sitting outside a Culpeper coffee shop. “They know things are upside down. They know they’re afraid, they know there’s a pandemic. So why are you going to just say you want to do something that you actually, maybe, don’t want to do?”

Few Democrats expect that crime will be their biggest vulnerability going into November, with the GOP targeting inflation as their top issue. Still, incumbents like Spanberger say it remains a campaign problem and have been intentional about reaching out to law enforcement communities back home.

Spanberger spent her morning in Culpeper addressing the local police department’s morning roll call, touting her legislation to help officers and offering assistance from her district staff. It was familiar territory for Spanberger, whose father had also worked in law enforcement.

“I know that some of what you all contend with is the worst of the worst and the darkest of the darkest in terms of people, the crimes that can be committed or people in their low points and the challenges,” she told the officers.

Spanberger consistently favors confronting problems head on — in her first run to the House in 2018, her campaign disclosed that a Republican PAC had obtained her confidential security clearance application. By the time the PAC used the information to attack her, she had already aired nearly 900 positive TV spots.

She’s also carried her decadeslong career as a postal inspector and then as a CIA officer into her work in the House. During her four years there, she’s built a reputation as a national security hawk who is unafraid to buck her own party and work across the aisle.

“One of the things with Rep. Spanberger I think is so appealing is her bipartisan work that she does and reaching across the aisle to get things done. And not getting caught up in … ‘Rs versus the Ds’, which I think the average citizen is pretty fed up with,” said local police chief Chris Jenkins, who’d also joined her a few weeks prior in Washington to promote a bill combating substance abuse.

“I can tell you, I worked with [former GOP Rep.] Eric Cantor… Got along with him well. His replacement, not so well,” Jenkins added, referring to former Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus whom Spanberger defeated in 2018.

Spanberger’s outreach to law enforcement here in Culpeper County is in line with the party’s broader guidance to counter midterm headwinds: Don’t allow GOP attacks to go unanswered

The House Democrats’ campaign arm has strongly urged incumbents to forcefully respond to the GOP’s criticisms on everything from policing to critical race theory, pointing to internal polling and focus groups showing their own rebuttal can help sway voters. Rather than deny support for “open borders,” for instance, Democrats need to explain their “real beliefs for fixing the immigration system,” an outside firm told Democrats in a campaign presentation in February.

Those kinds of culture war attacks showed up in a big way in Virginia’s state elections last November, when the GOP clinched its first statewide victory there since 2009. The Republican candidate, now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin, seized on Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s record on crime, as well as a potent backlash over school closures and curriculum fights.

Now, Spanberger and her fellow battleground Democrats hope to avoid the same fate. And they’re not just worried about policing. Immigration has also become an issue in Culpeper, where police officers have been tasked with finding unaccompanied Central American migrant children who had been placed with sponsors in the town but since gone missing.

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