At a busy pub in Midlothian, Virginia, a group of voters are gathered at long wooden tables, ordering burgers and pimento cheese fries and talking about the Democrats' legislative agenda.
"I think universal pre-K is a good idea," said Lindsay Sherrard, a local physician.
"The [child] tax credit is fantastic," added Yael Levin, who works on education issues. "I love the tax credit because that gives the choice back to people."
Both policies are staples of the Democrats' Build Back Better bill, which passed the House Friday morning.
But this isn't a Democratic event. It's a meet and greet for supporters of Tina Ramirez, one of at least seven Republicans vying to challenge incumbent Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who was first elected in 2018 by a narrow margin.
The pub is located in Chesterfield County, which makes up the largest percentage of Spanberger's district, Virginia's 7th. It swung from former President Donald Trump in 2016 to President Biden four years later and most recently to Republican Glenn Youngkin for governor.
Republicans have made gains in recent off-year elections and they want to maintain that momentum. The National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting at least 70 incumbent Democrats, eyeing key opportunities to flip suburban districts like Spanberger's, which used to be GOP strongholds.
Democrats are hoping legislative victories that bring home federal dollars will boost their chances at the polls next year and allow them to retain control of the House.
But the voters gathered for burgers and politics in Midlothian are clear: sure, they may support some of these Democratic policies, but not enough to cast their vote for a Democrat in the 2022 midterm elections.
The economy and cultural issues front and center
Ramirez tells NPR that's because voters here by and large don't like the idea of Washington having a blank check for government spending.
"I think there's a real feeling, in this state in particular, that you have this idea that government knows best or that government's the answer to everything," she said. "People are just fed up."
Ramirez added it's the issues people "feel every day" — like inflation — that ultimately drive their political decisions.
"People are so frustrated," she said. "They feel it and this is a result of just bad economic policy."
It's an issue that resonates with voters like Levin. She considers herself an independent and has voted for both Republicans and Democrats in the past. She is solidly in Ramirez's camp and said she's concerned about inflation and the supply chain.
"My momma van is dying and we need to get a new car, and there's no inventory," she said. "I can barely afford gas. I can barely afford groceries for two teen athletic boys."
She likes the child tax credit, but not if it's wrapped up in a $2 trillion spending package.
"Tax credits are always a good thing," she said. "But if you lump it in with spending that's out of control, that's going to put my great-great-grandchildren in debt, then I'm going to be against it."
Another issue that nearly every voter at Ramirez's campaign event brought up was critical race theory — a graduate-level academic approach that looks at institutions through the lens of race and racism. They believe CRT has made its way into K-12 public schools.
"Kids — when they go to school, they want to learn," said Carmen Williams, a Ramirez supporter who immigrated to the U.S. from Peru. "A white person shouldn't say, 'Oh I am white, I am bad.'"
While CRT scholars would take issue with Williams' characterization, Republican messaging has turned the graduate-level theory into a culture war issue and it's led to spinoff discussions in school board and PTA meetings about whether to ban various books from curricula and how the existence and history of racism should be taught in schools.
Monica Hutchinson, a community organizer and lifelong Democrat, said the angry debate over how teachers talk about race in schools is frustrating, particularly as a Black mother.
"When I hear suburban white moms say, 'Well, I think my child is too young to learn about racism,' I'm like, 'Hello — the counter to that is simple: my child has to experience racism, right?'" she said. "We don't get the luxury of saying, 'Oh, my child's too young.'"
'It is easier for suburban white women to flip'
Sherrard, a white mother of two who typically votes Republican, said she thinks pushback against Democratic rhetoric helped fuel Youngkin's recent win.
"I think Virginia voters just really came against so many woke policies, if you want to call it that — just the constant focus on race and the constant focus on transgender issues," she listed. "We want to just go back to the basics: basic economic recovery, basic education, a military that can defend us."
She posits the county's flip from Trump to Biden wasn't a rebuke of conservative principles so much as a rebuke of Trump himself.
"I still voted for Trump because I liked his policies better than Biden's, but the man is crazy," she said. "And I think a lot of people felt like he was not a dignified leader of our country."
The retreat of white suburban women who voted for Biden in 2020 back to the GOP in 2021 is a tale Hutchinson has heard before.
"It is easier for suburban white women to flip because they don't have to live with the consequences of a lot of these issues that are directly impacting families like mine," Hutchinson told NPR in Henrico County, the blue heart of the 7th district.
She supports the Democratic agenda, but said the party has a major political problem.
"We have always been horrible at messaging," Hutchinson said. "[Democrats] are fighting so hard, [but] they're forgetting to come out and let the people know what they're doing."
Boosting Democratic messaging
It's a sentiment that's widely shared among Democrats in Henrico County.
Lorah Vizdos is a fervent supporter of Spanberger — so much so that she and a group of friends she met volunteering for the congresswoman have dubbed themselves the 'fan-bergers.' She's adamant that Democrats need to go on the offense.
"They're too busy playing defense and trying to be nice. 'We go high' — stop it," she said, shaking her head. "Because this culture war is not going to end because you refuse to participate. It's simply going to get worse and worse and worse."
She's frustrated Democrats didn't pass their trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill in time for Virginia Democrats to campaign on it.
"[Republicans members are] going to be there at all the ribbon cuttings and taking credit for stuff they didn't vote for," she said.
Vizdos wants Democrats to be consistent with their messaging — making sure they "bang the drum" on all the things they've voted for that bring resources to their communities.
"Just say, 'The guy who's running against me voted against this.' It's not hard, it's not rocket science. You don't need special words or an interpretive dance or anything — just say it."
Vizdos may get her wish. Democrats are planning a nationwide public relations blitz with over 1,000 events to tout the legislation they've passed.
Rep. Spanberger told NPR a lot of the national Democratic messaging up to this point has obscured the very real deliverables lawmakers are bringing to their districts.
"In the community that I represent, we have had school districts use American Rescue Plan dollars to be able to hire bus drivers. There's still a bus driver shortage but to be able to use that money is incredibly important," she gave as an example. That these kinds of real world benefits get lost frustrates the moderate.
Refining a national message is one thing. But perhaps the more challenging task for Democrats like Spanberger is reaching constituents like the voters at the burger joint, who — despite supporting pieces of their policies — say they just won't vote for a Democrat next year.
"I know that people who see themselves as Republicans see the value in the child tax credit — they see it in their own lives, they see it in their grandchildren's lives," Spanberger said. "But sometimes, our political labels in a time of hyper-partisanship can be blinding."
Whether Democrats can reconcile that divide could be the difference between maintaining control of the House in 2022 or getting washed away in a red wave.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Congressional Democrats are hoping that a giant bill filled with their domestic priorities will boost their success in next year's elections. But their agenda did not help them in this month's Virginia elections, where Republicans dominated. Now some congressional districts in Virginia become battlegrounds. NPR's Barbara Sprunt brings us this report from the suburbs of Richmond.
BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: At a bustling local pub in Chesterfield County, a group of voters are ordering burgers and pimento cheese fries and talking about the Democrats' Build Back Better agenda.
LINDSAY SHERRARD: And I think universal pre-K's a good idea.
YAEL LEVIN: Tax credit are fantastic. I love tax credit because that gives the choice back to people.
SPRUNT: Universal pre-K and the expanded child tax credit - both staples of the Democrats proposed spending package. But this is not a Democratic event. It's a meet-and-greet for supporters of Tina Ramirez, one of at least seven Republicans vying to challenge incumbent Democratic congresswoman Abigail Spanberger. In short, they might like some of these policies but not enough to vote for a Democrat. Ramirez says that's because by and large voters don't support increased government spending.
TINA RAMIREZ: I think there's a real feeling in this state in particular, you know, this idea that government knows best or that government's the answer to everything. People are just fed up.
SPRUNT: Chesterfield County makes up the largest part of this district, which spans across central Virginia and includes large portions of the Richmond suburbs. It's swung from Trump to Biden and most recently to Republican Glenn Youngkin for governor. Yael Levin, a Ramirez supporter, is an independent and says inflation is on the top of her mind.
LEVIN: The gas prices are killing me. I feed two teenage boys who play soccer, so my grocery bills have literally skyrocketed.
SPRUNT: For Carmen Williams, it's what she calls critical race theory in public schools that's a main concern. The theory examines institutions through the lens of race and racism. It's used in graduate-level studies, but Republican messaging has turned it into a culture war issue, contending it's in K-12 schools and is dividing children by race. Here's Williams.
CARMEN WILLIAMS: Kids, when they go to school, they want to learn. And white people shouldn't say, oh, I am white; I am bad, or you are Black; you are minority; you cannot do better than that (ph).
SPRUNT: Lindsay Sherrard, a white mother of two, says conservative principles still resonate in the county.
SHERRARD: I think Virginia voters just really came against so many woke policies, if you want to call it that, too, like just the constant focus on race and the constant focus on transgender issues. We want to just go back to the basics.
SPRUNT: She suspects the county's flip from Trump to Biden wasn't about policies, but Trump himself.
SHERRARD: I still voted for Trump because I like his policies. But the man is crazy, and I think a lot of people felt like he was not a dignified leader of our country.
SPRUNT: Twenty miles north in Henrico County, the blue heart of the district, Monica Hutchinson says the retreat of white women who voted for Biden back to the GOP is frustrating.
MONICA HUTCHINSON: It is easier for suburban white women to flip 'cause they don't have to actually live with the consequences of a lot of these issues that are directly impacting families like mine.
SPRUNT: Hutchinson, a community organizer and lifelong Democrat, says the angry debate over the teaching of race in schools is exasperating, especially as a Black mother.
HUTCHINSON: When I hear suburban white moms say, well, I think my child's too young to learn about racism, I'm like, hello. The counter to that is simple. My child has to experience racism, right? We don't get the luxury of saying, oh, my child's too young.
SPRUNT: She supports the Democratic agenda but says, politically, the party has a big problem.
HUTCHINSON: We have always been horrible at messaging, right? They're fighting so hard that they're also forgetting to come out and let the people know what they're doing.
SPRUNT: Lorah Vizdos, also of Henrico County, agrees that Democrats need to go on the offense.
LORAH VIZDOS: They're too busy playing defense and trying to be nice. We go high. Stop it because this culture war is not going to end because you refuse to participate.
SPRUNT: She wishes Democrats had passed their trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill earlier so they could have campaigned on it this year and says the party's messaging going forward should be simple.
VIZDOS: The guy who's running against me voted against this. It's not hard. It's not rocket science. You don't need special words or an interpretive dance or anything. Just say it.
ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: I think she's exactly right.
SPRUNT: That's Spanberger. She says improving messaging is one thing, but perhaps the more challenging task is reaching constituents like the folks at the burger joint who, despite supporting pieces of their policies, say they won't vote for a Democrat next year.
SPANBERGER: I know that people who see themselves as Republicans see the value in the child tax credit. They see it in their own lives. But sometimes our political labels can be blinding.
SPRUNT: Whether Democrats like Spanberger can reconcile that divide could be the difference between maintaining control of the house next year or getting washed away in a red wave.
Barbara Sprunt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.