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By James Oliphant
LEON, Va. (Reuters) - If Abigail Spanberger, a moderate congresswoman from a liberal-leaning Virginia district outside Washington loses her re-election bid on Tuesday, it could be the harbinger of a midterm bloodbath for the Democratic Party.
That was why Spanberger was at a winery this week imploring volunteers to hit the phones. Her once-comfortable lead had shrunk to nothing.
"We have a toss-up race," she said. "There is work to be done."
Like Spanberger, Democratic candidates across the country are intensifying their efforts to stave off what increasingly looks like a Republican wave that could result in the loss of more than 20 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and perhaps control of both chambers of Congress.
The grim outlook has some Democrats second-guessing their party's midterm messaging, which has emphasized the threat Republicans pose to abortion rights and democracy in a year when voters have said they are most concerned about the economy and violent crime.
Polls continue to show voters frustrated over high consumer prices and blaming the party in power from President Joe Biden on down. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Oct. 31-Nov. 1 showed 69% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, compared with just 18% who said it was headed in the right direction.
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A few months ago, Spanberger was among the Democratic incumbents who appeared relatively safe. But a flood of Republican PAC money, a barrage of TV ads blaming Democrats for "staggering inflation" and "letting violent criminals back on the streets," and voter antipathy have helped their Republican opponents close the gap.
"We're seeing a lot of races that were thought of as unwinnable become winnable," said Doug Heye, once a top aide to former Republican House leader Eric Cantor, who represented the same district as Spanberger.
RUNNING ON HER RECORD
At campaign events, Spanberger details a laundry list of legislative victories under Biden: massive infrastructure and climate bills, and measures to lower prescription drug costs and boost domestic semiconductor production.
A former CIA officer, Spanberger has criticized her party's progressive wing and has attempted to appeal to independent voters. She was first elected as part of a Democratic wave in 2018 when Donald Trump was president.
"I have a voting record, a proud record of accomplishment," Spanberger told the crowd at the winery on Wednesday.
But Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic consultant and former Senate leadership aide, said it is difficult for voters irate about energy and food prices to view those actions as making a difference in their day-to-day lives.
"People don't want to hear about their accomplishments," Mollineau said. "They're not feeling them."
Democrats like Spanberger have also turned to more basic "us versus them" arguments: warning about the threats Republicans may pose to abortion rights, election integrity and programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Biden has prioritized the theme of preserving democracy, giving his second speech on that subject on Wednesday.
In an interview, Spanberger rejected the idea that she should focus solely on economic issues, despite the wealth of data that ranks it the top concern of voters.
"I talk about everything because everything is important to the people I represent," she said, citing abortion and the environment as examples. "I don't walk into a room and say 'I know the economy is your biggest challenge.'"
Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist in Chicago, said Democrats need to do better at tying voters' concerns about inflation to the party's agenda, even when discussing abortion.
"Democrats have allowed 'economic issues' to be too narrowly defined, repeating concerns about gas prices and groceries without also centering family-level economic issues like child care and education costs," Sefl said.
To Republican Heye, the reason Spanberger and other once-safe Democrats are struggling in the final days of the campaign is simple.
"If you're talking about everything, then you're not focusing on anything," Heye said.
Spanberger's Republican opponent, Yesli Vega, seems almost tailor-made for the current political moment. A former police officer, she has made crime a central theme in her campaign.
And as the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, Vega has looked to win over the district's significant Hispanic population on kitchen-table and education issues.
"I don't know about you, but I find myself having to go to three different grocery stores to make that dollar stretch," she told supporters near Culpeper, Virginia, on Tuesday.
Vega was joined at the rally by Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who won election last year in a state where Biden beat Trump by 10 percentage points. Youngkin decried COVID-related school lockdowns and promoted parental rights in education policy during his campaign.
Vega has followed suit, telling the crowd she would never "co-parent with the federal government."
Spanberger has gone after Vega on abortion, running TV ads that note Vega's anti-abortion position and asserting Vega favors a national ban on abortion, something Vega has denied.
In turn, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC headed by Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, has run ads alleging Spanberger's support for COVID-19 stimulus programs meant she had supported sending "checks to prisoners."
Spanberger may yet keep her seat if Republicans take the House with more limited gains. Her newly redrawn district has a slight Democratic tilt.
But if she loses it may not be because of anything she said or did, Mollineau said.
"The American people are really pissed off in general," he said, "and are looking to punish those in charge."
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Virginia; Additional reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Daniel Wallis)