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Eugene Vindman
Eugene Vindman advised his brother through the 2019 impeachment, filed a whistleblower report and was later demoted. Alex Brandon/AP

A ‘Resistance’ Hero Is Running for Congress. Local Democrats Are Frustrated.

The tensions between the national, online grassroots and local party activists are bringing unusual drama to a crucial House race.

STAFFORD, Va. — Since launching his House campaign last year, Yevgeny “Eugene” Vindman has become a cause célèbre for liberal donors across the country. The former Army officer has parlayed his history as a foe of Donald Trump — he helped reveal a scandal in 2019 that would eventually lead to the former president’s first impeachment — to millions of dollars in small contributions.

The response to Vindman’s campaign on the ground here in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, however, is less enthusiastic.

In a series of unusually sharp denunciations, local Democratic elected officials have publicly accused Vindman of being a stranger in his own district. They’ve criticized him for failing to help local party candidates in last year’s state elections. And they jeered at him for public mishaps that they say have undermined his connection to the area.

Most of all, they’ve said he campaigns like a national politician, more interested in taking on Trump than diving into local issues.

“I want to have someone representing me who understands what it’s like to live here in Fredericksburg, who knows what it’s like to understand Culpeper, who knows what it’s like to understand King George County,” said Virginia Democratic Delegate Joshua Cole, listing different localities in 7th District.

“We understand Donald Trump is a boogeyman right now, but there are other real-life issues that we are concerned about too,” he added.

More than any Democratic race this year, this primary is exposing a fault line between Democrats’ powerful online fundraising base and on-the-ground party activists, who lack financial heft but often spend years doing painstaking behind-the-scenes organizing. The two factions often prioritize different values — anti-Trump bona fides versus strong local connections — and sometimes back different candidates.

The online faction might be poised to get its way in the June 18 primary: Vindman is considered the favorite, thanks in large part to his fundraising and the presence of a seven-candidate field that splits the opposition. He’s also worked to win over voters in the district, according to local Democratic officials — attending even small gatherings to introduce himself while earning endorsements from some party leaders. Some voters said in interviews that local officials’ concerns are overblown and that Vindman’s history with Trump is more important — a point reiterated by some party leaders from the district who have endorsed Vindman.

In an interview, Vindman rejected the premise that his campaign appeals more to Democrats online than voters in the district, saying that elected officials who criticize him for talking too much about Trump, or failing to help local Democratic candidates in recent elections, are overlooking what most of the party’s grassroots voters actually want.

“We know for 100% fact that [Trump] will be the nominee for the Republicans, and it’s a binary choice,” Vindman said. “It’s either him or Biden. And in that context, if it’s not all hands on deck, fighting to get the entire ticket, Biden, Kaine and whoever the nominee is for the 7th Congressional District, it has to be all hands on deck, because the alternative, frankly, would be horrendous, in my opinion.”

The primary’s outcome in the 7th District, which sprawls from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in the east to the rural farms of the Shenandoah Valley in the west, is important for November. The battleground seat is held by the departing Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger and is expected to be competitive in the general election.

Fundraising concerns

The tensions around Vindman have repeatedly spilled out in public. When Cole needled the campaign in November, Vindman’s sister-in-law, who has a substantial online following, responded by vowing to “attack you every fucking time” the delegate or anyone else criticizes Vindman over his inexperience in local politics. (She later deleted the post, and Vindman, in the interview, said he had “no chance of influencing her behaviors.”)

Last month, Vindman posed for a picture with someone holding a Confederate-era Virginia flag, drawing a blistering response from Democratic state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (who later endorsed one of Vindman’s opponents.) He later apologized.

But it’s easy to understand why the candidate is a minor sensation among liberal donors. In 2019, his twin brother, Alexander Vindman, was put under an international spotlight when he testified during a congressional impeachment hearing that Trump had improperly pressured Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy to supply information about Joe Biden. Eugene Vindman advised his brother through the impeachment process, filed a whistleblower report about Trump’s call and was later demoted by Trump in retaliation.

Eugene Vindman admits that some voters confuse him for his brother, who had a higher profile during Trump’s impeachment and, of course, looks exactly like him. One local Democratic official joked that when she held a meet-and-greet for Vindman at her home with a small group of voters, half of them showed up thinking Eugene was actually his brother.

But Alexander Vindman is playing a key role in his brother’s campaign.

“When they say you can’t be in two places at one time, we’re gonna challenge that notion,” said Eugene Vindman, who noted that occasionally even his parents can’t tell the difference between the twins. “And he’s gonna work hard, and we support each other 100%.”

National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, left, walks with his twin brother, Army Lt. Col. Yevgeny "Eugene" Vindman, after testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019.
“Vindman speaks to, let’s just say, the very media-engaged part of the Democratic base here.” Julio Cortez/AP

Fame helped Vindman, who emigrated from Ukraine as a young child, secure endorsements from influential groups like VoteVets and high-profile Democrats like Rep. Adam Schiff and hold fundraising (along with his brother) with “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill. Their support, in turn, boosted his fundraising.

Vindman raised about $3.8 million through March, roughly 15 times more than his nearest Democratic competitor. The vast majority of that haul came from outside of Virginia, according to the Federal Election Commission, which showed him raising more than twice as much in California and New York (about $280,000) as he did in Virginia (about $120,000). The FEC found that about 75% of his donations came from contributions worth $200 or less. Opensecrets.org found that nearly 92% of his donations came from outside Virginia.

Vindman has also raised more money from Virginia donors than any of his competitors. The candidate is eager to make the case that, regardless of where the contributions originate, his ability to raise so much money should be seen as a major asset against the GOP nominee in a general election.

“This is a seat we must win in order to win back the House,” Vindman said during a candidate forum last month in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “So when you start to think about holding the seat, please consider the resources, the experience, the principles of the candidates.”

“‘Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump’”

The 48-year-old Vindman, who grew up in New York City, said he has lived in Dale City since 2016, near Washington. His history with politics before launching his campaign was threadbare, as he himself acknowledged, curtailed by his enlistment in the Army. After considering the question for a moment, he said he thought he had always voted for Democratic presidential nominees, dating back to Bill Clinton.

He participated in the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, shortly after Trump was inaugurated, he said. Contrary to a media report, he also denied ever having considered running for another House seat.

Other details are fuzzier: In the interview, Vindman also said he had donated to then-delegate candidate Briana Sewell’s campaign in 2023; a campaign spokesman later clarified that Vindman and his wife had only attended an event supporting Sewell, not donated to her campaign. (Sewell is now running against Vindman in the primary.)

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Vindman also said that between his retirement in 2022 and the start of his campaign in November, he had spent about half of his time in Ukraine, where he is an ardent supporter of the fight against Russia’s invasion. Asked about a 2023 post on X from epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who said he had canvassed voters with the Vindman twins in 2021 to support Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, Vindman said he had forgotten he had done that.

“Some of these things are not necessarily in the forefront of my mind,” he said.

Feigl-Ding, who is popular with liberals on X, referenced the canvassing to defend Vindman from criticism that he should have been more involved in the area before running for Congress.

Other Democrats in the district are more concerned about his all-encompassing emphasis on Trump.

“It does get under some folks’ skin that he’s trying to parachute into the district and win by talking about a bunch of national issues and just saying ‘Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump,’” said Matt Borja, who works with the Culpeper County Democratic Party. “And just waltz into Congress, just based on that.”

Borja, who supports Sewell, said he wants candidates to talk about overlooked issues, like the proliferation of energy- and land-consuming data centers in the district, rather than subjects that would appear regularly on MSNBC.

“Vindman speaks to, let’s just say, the very media-engaged part of the Democratic base here,” he said.

It’s true that Vindman talks a lot about Trump: At a candidate forum hosted by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity earlier this year, he said he entered the race because “he could not live” with Trump as the GOP presidential nominee. One mailer sent to voters in the district also featured a picture of Trump with the quote “Who blew the whistle” on one side of the pamphlet, with a picture of Vindman and the quote “I did” on the other side.

But the campaign also uses Trump to make a broader argument about Vindman and his values as a politician, in a way that goes beyond simply opposing the former president. Another mailer from the campaign, for instance, quotes an OB-GYN saying that she trusts Vindman to protect abortion rights because he already showed, when he filed the whistleblower report, that he doesn’t cave under pressure.

All of the Democratic candidates make similar promises, said Keith Lockett, a 70-year-old retired resident of Fredericksburg, but only Vindman has proven he can be trusted.

“I don’t have to guess with Eugene,” Lockett said. “I know he will do whatever the right thing is for whatever the issue is.”

Shortly after the spat with his sister-in-law, Vindman reached out to Cole to introduce himself. The two men talked by phone, in what they each described as a cordial conversation.

But Cole’s skepticism remains, inflamed by what he says is a litany of excuses for why Vindman hasn’t helped local Democrats with their races. And when other community leaders ask him which candidate he’s supporting, he’s not shy about answering.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Cole said, “but they know who I’m not supporting.”