In some ways, Abigail Spanberger’s story parallels dozens of other first-time female candidates across the country this year: a successful, smart woman driven to get involved in politics for the first time after President Trump was elected — and eventually inspired to take on her Republican congressman.
But as a former spy for the Central Intelligence Agency, her life has been anything but typical.
The Virginia mother of three told “Good Morning America” during a sit-down interview in her kitchen this summer that she always had a desire to serve her country, an interest in government, and a love of languages. She was studying overseas on Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks marked a turning point in her life. Spanberger decided the time to serve her country was then — no more waiting.
She applied for a job with the CIA and had a confidential offer by 2002. The next four years she was evaluated, physically and physiologically, and began to train for life undercover. “I loved the idea of understanding people, places, concepts, concerns and large international questions,” she said, describing her work. “And being the one to go out and get the answers.”
Yes, she said, she had disguises and a cover story. For the majority of her time with the agency, her own mother did not know what she was doing for a living. “People worry, because people watch Hollywood movies, people don’t know how extensive our training is,” she said, adding how she wanted to protect her mother from the stress of it all.
Spanberger’s career took her around the globe. Pressed on details, she gives few. She had to work with the CIA to get her service record declassified to run for Congress and now on the trail sticks to carefully scripted lines, approved by the agency, when talking about her work.
“I talk in broad brush terms about what it is that I did, because that’s all I am permitted to do … There are at times when I say I wish I could talk about something in a little bit more detail, but that’s just never a path that I’ll go down,” she explained. “I take my commitment to protecting the people who are still doing the job that I once did and the foreign nationals who are risking their lives as well to provide information the U.S. government very seriously.”
Spanberger’s blue and white yard signs have a single, small star — a subtle reference to her work in the agency — but apart from that she actually does not reference her work much when campaigning, though she does emphasis service, honor, and American values in her speeches.
The top issues on her campaign website are health care, gun violence prevention and protecting social security and Medicare.
“I really started getting more politically involved after the 2016 election, watching how partisan and how angry our political conversations became,” she said. “When I was a CIA officer we would have meetings and you don’t know what people's politics are … We were there to serve a mission that we were focused on that mission.”
Her race was catapulted into the national spotlight over the summer when a Republican PAC obtained and released an un-redacted version of one of her security clearance forms from the U.S. Postal Service. She had briefly worked for the USPS on an inspection team, investigating narcotics and money laundering cases.
The security clearance form listed another one of Spanberger’s former jobs as a substitute English teacher at a Saudi Arabia embassy school. The Republican political action committee, known as the Congressional Leadership Fund, ran ads claiming she worked at a school that produced some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists.
The Postal Service said the un-redacted document, that included social security numbers and health information, was released by mistake in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
"As a former CIA officer who worked terrorism cases, I find it particularly disgraceful that they would try and make that some sort of leap or claim when I was in fact a long-term substitute teacher for a bunch of kids,” she said in response.
Her opponent stayed quiet on the issue.
Why Republicans and Democrats will be watching this race on Election Night
Spanberger grew up in the district in west of Richmond, Virginia, where she now lives again with her family and is running for office.
In 2017, a record number of women won in local elections in Virginia, making the state one of the first to experience and reflect a wave of energy among Democrats, female voters and female candidates in the country. New delegates to the Virginia Assembly, like Danica Roem, the first openly transgender legislator in the country, made national headlines.
“I was able to get involved in those races and watch really great people step forward and stand up for what they believe in and want to be a part of the political process,” Spanberger said. “It was watching that example that led me to decide that I too wanted to step forward and run.”
In 2017, three local state seats within Spanberger’s own congressional district flipped from Republican to Democrat and some of the volunteers making phone calls and sending letters in her campaign offices described volunteering on local races in 2017 and then heading straight into helping Spanberger next.
Spanberger is challenging Republican incumbent Dave Brat and the prospect of flipping the seat is a long-shot. Brat beat his last Democratic challenger by 15-percentage points, and the district went for President Trump in 2016 by a margin of 6.5 points, though Democrat Hillary Clinton won the state overall.
During a recent debate, Brat repeatedly accused Spanberger of being a Nancy Pelosi-style Democrat and too liberal for the district.
“A vote for my opponent will be a vote for the Nancy Pelosi liberal agenda,” he said.
Spanberger has said she thinks the Democratic Party needs new leaders and that she would not back Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, as the next Speaker of the House if Democrats won the majority.
The two also sparred over issues like the recent Republican tax reform law.
“When you put capital in the hands of the American worker, the American worker knows what to do with it,” Brat said during their debate.
“Corporations got permanent tax cuts, permanent tax cuts,” Spanberger responded. “Those did not trickle down to employees.”
If Spanberger were to flip the seat, it would be a big win for Democrats. Brat shocked the nation when he defeated sitting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary in 2014.
This year, staff for both the national Republican and Democratic Parties say they will be looking to this race on Election Night as potentially an early sign of how the night will unfold across the country.