A poll worker puts down a sign to guide voters to a polling station at Rose Hill Elementary School during the midterm primary election in Alexandria, Va. on June 21, 2022.
Alex Wong—Getty Images
June 21, 2022 12:59 PM EDT

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Almost as soon as Joe Biden won the White House in 2020, House Republicans’ campaign arm started collecting data and birddogging the state-by-state redistricting processes that would reset the map for the midterms, the first full test of the new President’s coattails. The message was clear: cede no corner of the country to Democratic incumbents, double-check the math about each district, and assume money will be there to fund a coast-to-coast effort to force Nancy Pelosi once again from the Speaker’s Office. After all, Biden may have won the big prize on Election Day 2020, but House Republicans picked up 15 seats on the same ballots, including 12 that incumbent Democrats had sought to hold.

By the time most of the new maps were put in place in recent weeks, Rep. Tom Emmer’s team at the National Republican Congressional Committee had identified 75 incumbent Democrats whose re-election bids would be aggressively contested, the biggest battleground considered by the party in years. Of those, fully 59 are places that as recently as two years ago were Biden territory. The message to party staffers, donors, and insiders alike was clear: don’t assume that Biden can shield his nominal allies. Already, the NRCC alone has reserved more than $100 million in television ads and is humming as well as ever. Given the current vacancies in the House, Republicans need to net just six seats to claim their own one-vote majority. (This, of course, assumes whoever leads the GOP in the next Congress can keep their caucus united.)

The reality lays bare just how much of a drag Biden and national Democrats’ all-but–mothballed agenda could be on the party’s hopes of defending their incredibly narrow majority against abysmal poll numbers, not to mention the history that a president’s party typically faces losses in its first at-bat with voters. Biden’s approval numbers are the worst of any president since World War II at this point in his presidency; in recent days, Biden has narrowly slipped below even Donald Trump’s numbers.

All of which justifies Republican optimism. But, first, they have to pick nominees. And those choices, especially in close districts where some skilled incumbents are fighting for their political lives, can really matter.

Just look at Tuesday’s primaries in Virginia, where Republicans are selecting nominees in two competitive districts that are practically in D.C.’s backyard. The GOP’s path back to a House majority has many, many forks, but most strategists regard those two Virginia seats as potentially critical stops.

The one currently held by two-term Rep. Elaine Luria includes parts of Norfolk and Hampton, and all of Virginia Beach, and offers about a three-point advantage for Republicans. Mathematically, it’s about as middle-of-the-pack as they come, with the Cook Political Report noting in its analysis that as many districts are more friendly to Republicans as are friendly to Democrats.

State senator Jen Kiggans, a retired Navy helicopter pilot and nurse practitioner, is widely seen as the favorite to win the GOP nomination in a district with heavy military presence. Republicans in Washington see Kiggans as a competent challenger to Luria, herself a retired Navy commander, but note other veterans are also in the running. One of them, Navy veteran Jarome Bell, has embraced Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen and has called for the execution of those who commit election fraud. (Bell has been banned from Twitter and some of his posts on Facebook have been removed, including one that claimed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was about LGBT rights.)

Two other Republicans, Navy veteran and former prosecutor Andy Baan and Air Force veteran and ordained minister-slash-tattoo shop owner Tommy Altman are also running.

Trump carried the district in 2016 with 48% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 45%. Four years later, Biden carried the district with 51% of the vote.

The new maps, however, shifted the district slightly to the right. Whereas Biden carried the old district by 4.9 percentage points, he would have carried it by a much narrower 3.1 percentage points today if the same voters turned out. In other words, the new maps—plus Republicans’ built-in advantages for generic candidates—may make the race incredibly messy.

To the north, two-term Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger similarly is facing plenty of interest from the GOP. Spanberger is a former CIA employee whose time with the spy agency is still classified and can only be discussed in the broadest of terms. In 2018, she ended Republicans’ three-decade hold on the seat, based in the Richmond suburbs,and has since been very open about her frustrations with the national party. During one call in the wake of the 2020 elections that watched Biden win but Democrats’ House majority shrink, Spanberger was blunt to her colleagues: “We have to commit to not saying the words ‘defund the police’ ever again,” she reportedly said. “We have to not use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again.”

For Republicans, the race is a true unknown. Washington Republicans see three contenders in the top tier, and all have ties to the military. Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega is an Army wife, a police hostage negotiator, and the first Latina to win in her blue-leaning county. Last year, she helped Glenn Youngkin pull off an upset win in the gubernatorial race by helping him connect with Latino voters; both the share of the electorate who identified as Latino dropped off in the non-presidential year, as did the margin as Youngkin carried 32%, down four points in an election that was entirely different than the one the year before. Vega has not been not shy about her conservative beliefs—and she has caught the eye of the likes of Rep. Louie Goehmert, Sen. Ted Cruz and former state AG Ken Cuccinelli. (She doesn’t actually currently live in the district.)

Meanwhile, retired Green Beret Derrick Anderson, a graduate of Georgetown Law, is running on his foreign policy experience, including six tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and zero experience in politics. And state Sen. Bryce Reeves is a retired Army captain with a policy master’s degree from George Mason University. Both are seen as entirely viable alternatives to Vega in a district that in redrawing now creeps up to the D.C. suburbs in northern Virginia.

Yet the new map should give Spanberger some breathing room. Whereas her district gave Biden about a 1.3 percentage point win on the old turf, the results from 2020 would now give him a 6.3 percentage point victory in the new Seventh District.

As with Luria’s district, Spanberger’s home turf voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. But also like Luria’s district, voters there last year supported Youngkin. This poses an open question: when Virginia Democrats saw victories in 2018 and 2020, how much of that was a credit to their candidate recruitment strategy, and how much was more about the backlash to Trump, who no longer has any official role in politics?

It’s a question that both parties will be looking to answer this fall in those two districts, and others like it across the country.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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