Challenger Accuses Ukrainian-born Congresswoman of Putting ‘Ukraine First’

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post
Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.), a native of Ukraine, at a news conference in Washington last year.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Rep. Victoria Spartz (Ind.) emerged as a leading Republican voice on the conflict. Spartz, the first Ukrainian-born immigrant to serve in the U.S. Congress, spoke passionately about the war-torn country’s need for assistance and appeared with President Biden to advance the cause.

Now, Spartz’s commitment to her homeland is being used against her by a well-funded primary challenger, underscoring the internal Republican divide that is complicating the hopes of House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to revisit Ukraine aid next week.

Spartz’s opponent, Chuck Goodrich, is airing television ads accusing Spartz of putting “Ukraine first,” prioritizing aid for the country over securing U.S. borders. She strongly denies the claim.

The spat is unfolding ahead of Indiana’s May 7 primary, where Spartz faces a crowded field of primary challengers after reversing her decision in February to not seek reelection. Goodrich, an Indiana state representative, has loaned his campaign $1 million and stood out as the top TV advertiser.

Goodrich’s latest ad says Spartz sent “40 billion of our tax dollars to Ukraine before the border wall is finished,” an apparent reference to her vote for an aid package that the House passed in May 2022. The spot also shows images of Spartz with Biden in the Oval Office that month as he signed into law a bipartisan bill to speed up the process of sending military aid to Ukraine.

Since then, Republicans have become more divided on the need to continue helping Ukraine, especially as some call for prioritizing the security of U.S. borders.

Spartz blasted Goodrich’s ad in an email to supporters last week, calling him a “lying corrupt RINO,” short for Republican in Name Only. Spartz said she was the first to call for audits of Ukraine aid, and noted that both the White House and Ukrainian government have criticized her positions on the war.

“When she walks through her position and America’s geopolitical interests, voters find themselves much more in agreement with her than one might expect looking at TV ads,” Spartz’s campaign consultant, Dan Hazelwood, said in a statement. “Her position of no blank checks, accountability and defense of freedom resonate with 80% of her district.”

On Wednesday, Spartz’s campaign ramped up its pushback, launching a TV ad that accuses Goodrich of putting “China first.”

The issue of Ukraine is personal for Spartz. She was born in Soviet-controlled Ukraine in 1978 and immigrated to the United States in 2000 after meeting her husband on a train in Europe.

Spartz was initially a natural choice to lead the GOP response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the lawmaker has come to stake out more complicated positions on the war than other lawmakers in either party.

Weeks after voting for the aid package in 2022, Spartz released a statement that criticized both Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over their approaches to the war, telling them to “stop playing politics.” She specifically said Zelensky needs to “start governing to better support his military and local governments” – rare U.S. criticism of the Ukrainian leader at the time.

In another jab at Zelensky, Spartz asked Biden to brief Congress on years-old accusations against the Ukrainian leader’s chief of staff, prompting a rebuke from Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry.

In an op-ed last month, Spartz decried what she said was the “false choice” of either giving Ukraine an “unlimited blank check” or getting criticized as “pro-Putin.”

Spartz has become more broadly known for her unpredictability. She took different positions throughout then-Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s 15-round speakership election in 2023, ultimately supporting him – and then criticizing him as “weak” during a government shutdown debate months later. A former McCarthy aide, Max Engling, is now among Spartz’s primary opponents.

It was no surprise to Spartz’s colleagues that she was retiring after vocally expressing discontent with the GOP conference, only to again flip on that decision.

There is a feeling among lawmakers that she would not be missed, while GOP campaign strategists are letting the primary play out without interfering in support of her or against. Several campaign strategists have noted the difficulty she has had in regaining support from her constituents after Goodrich made inroads campaigning for the months while she was out of the race.

Johnson has indicated he wants to advance a new Ukraine aid package when the House returns next week. But he will have to find a way to work around an isolationist wing of his party that has threatened to derail his speakership over it.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a vocal skeptic of further Ukraine aid, filed a motion to oust Johnson last month as he leaned on Democrats to pass a government funding package.

“I can promise you, if you put a Ukraine bill on the floor and you haven’t secured the border, there’s going to be a problem within the ranks and on Capitol Hill,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) said days later on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Spartz represents Indiana’s 5th Congressional District, which is anchored by the northern suburbs of Indianapolis. It was a battleground seat when she first won election in 2020, but redistricting turned it into a GOP stronghold starting with the 2022 election.

Spartz announced in February 2023 she would not seek reelection, saying she wanted to spend more time with family. But she reversed course in February, days before the filing deadline.

Goodrich stuck with his campaign and has been airing increasingly negative ads against Spartz. In an earlier commercial, he said Spartz has “failed us” while she “focuses on Europe’s problems.”

“Chuck Goodrich thinks we need to build the wall and secure the border first instead of continuing to send blank checks to Ukraine,” Goodrich campaign spokesman Kyle Kasting said in a statement. “Victoria Spartz stood with President Biden and supported 40 billion dollars of aid that, among other things, funded Ukrainian pensions and Ukrainian business bailouts.”

Spartz’s campaign argues the southern border is also a priority for her.

She was among the majority of House Republicans who voted against the $1.2 trillion bill to avert a government shutdown. She told an Indianapolis radio station afterward that “one of the big reasons” she opposed the legislation was that it did not do enough to secure the border.

“Border is extremely important, and I was very, very disappointed” with the funding bill, Spartz said.

At the same time, she has not entirely shied away from Ukraine in her campaign. Spartz released an ad last month in which she says she “grew up under socialist tyranny, and I will never let you down.”