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2017-12-20 / Featured / Front Page

Is the blue wave big enough to topple U.S. Rep. Dave Brat?

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


Former candidate Eileen Bedell, left, and Abigail Spanberger, Democratic candidate for the 7th District, at Perk coffee shop in Bon Air. Bedell is supporting Spanberger to unseat U.S. Rep. Dave Brat in 2018. 
ASH DANIEL Former candidate Eileen Bedell, left, and Abigail Spanberger, Democratic candidate for the 7th District, at Perk coffee shop in Bon Air. Bedell is supporting Spanberger to unseat U.S. Rep. Dave Brat in 2018. ASH DANIEL Update: After a recount in the 94th District of the Virginia House of Delegates, Democrat Shelly Simonds gained a one-vote advantage over incumbent Republican David Yancey on Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon, the race was declared a draw, tossing into question the 51-49 Republican advantage in the chamber. 

Democrats from across the 7th Congressional District escaped a bone-chilling early December evening and gathered inside Wood and Iron Game Day Restaurant, the North Chesterfield eatery where a group of local party leaders, candidates and volunteers celebrated the results of Virginia’s statewide election less than a month earlier.

They weren’t there to gloat or reminisce about past glory, but to strategize about an election that won’t take place until November 2018.

There’s no time like the present for these Democrats, who are hoping to tap into a rising wave of anti-Trump sentiment to take down, by most accounts, Virginia’s most Trumpian congressman. They want to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Dave Brat so badly they can taste it.


Abigail Spanberger talks with county residents, and potential voters, at a meet and greet at a home in Moseley on Dec. 10. 
ASH DANIEL Abigail Spanberger talks with county residents, and potential voters, at a meet and greet at a home in Moseley on Dec. 10. ASH DANIEL “People are plugged in,” said Kim Drew Wright, founder of the increasingly influential local group Liberal Women of Chesterfield County. “Grassroots groups all over the district are trying to figure out how they can work together and help each other out.”

Democrats know it will take a concerted effort to win the reliably red 7th District, which meanders from Culpeper through Orange and Spotsylvania south to Nottoway County and includes parts of Chesterfield, Henrico, Powhatan and Amelia.

Republicans have held the district since 1971. Brat won it for the first time in 2014, when he shocked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary before easily dispatching fellow Randolph-Macon College professor Jack Trammell in the general election. He was re-elected in 2016, beating Bon Air attorney Eileen Bedell with 58 percent of the vote. President Trump carried the 7th District by six points last November – an election that energized Democrats who had grown complacent after Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House.

Unlike prior years, when party leaders struggled to find candidates willing to play the role of sacrificial lamb, Democrats are tripping over themselves to challenge Brat in 2018.

As many as seven people have announced their candidacy this year. Four remain in the race, led by former CIA operations officer Abigail Spanberger and retired U.S. Marine Dan Ward.

Both have enjoyed early success raising money. As of Sept. 30, the most recent date for federal election reports, Ward had collected $263,180 in contributions and had $227,725 in cash on hand; Spanberger’s contributions totaled $243,413 and she had $209,820 on hand.

“That speaks to the support these candidates have,” said Bedell, who had filed paperwork to run again, but announced late last month that she was dropping out and endorsing Spanberger.

“I didn’t see the value of continuing to seek the nomination and potentially dividing the party,” Bedell added. “My priorities are beating Brat and electing someone who represents the values of the 7th District. It doesn’t have to be me.”

According to longtime Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth, Spanberger has “some potential for crossover appeal.”

“A very traditional liberal Democrat might have trouble in that district,” he said. “I think Spanberger has shown the capacity to gain the support of liberal Democrats, while at the same time maintaining the potential to cross over to independents and moderate Republicans. And that’s going to make it a fascinating race. She has a shot to be competitive.”

While Bedell insisted she didn’t back Spanberger over Ward solely because of her gender, she acknowledged it’s “unrealistic to think it’s not an advantage now to be a qualified woman in the 7th District.”

“Many highly educated women are furious with Brat – not just for his policy positions, but for the condescending manner in which he talks about them,” Bedell said.

The uproar started shortly after Trump’s election, when Brat was recorded telling a room full of supporters “the women are in my grill” about holding a public meeting and listening to constituents’ concerns about the GOP’s effort to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act.

By the time he relented and scheduled a town hall in the Nottoway County town of Blackstone last February, “Grill the Brat!” had become a rallying cry for Democrats across the sprawling district.

Brat was jeered relentlessly and interrupted constantly during both the Blackstone town hall and one he held at a Chesterfield church in early May. Since the latter event, Brat has met frequently with hand-picked constituent groups, but he has yet to schedule another public town hall.

A coalition of local progressive groups invited him to attend their town hall not far from his district office in Glen Allen in August. Brat declined, claiming via email that some of his constituents are “more interested in scoring political points with TV cameras running” than having a constructive dialogue.

“I will not spend 90 minutes being shouted at by individuals who have already demonstrated they have no interest in a productive exchange of ideas,” he added.

Despite the fact that Brat has closely aligned himself with Trump on health care, immigration and taxes, and the president’s approval rating is hovering in the mid-30s, Holsworth noted the congressman still enjoys “enthusiastic support” from the people who put him in office three years ago. “He’s going to say that he’s kept his promises,” Holsworth said. “He believes that in that district, that will be enough.”

Elizabeth Hardin, chairwoman of the Chesterfield Democratic Committee, predicted the “huge blue wave” that helped Democrats sweep the three top statewide offices and flip at least 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates will remain a factor in next year’s midterm elections.

“I definitely think we can beat Brat,” she said. “We have very credible candidates and we’ve proven we can get out the vote. Now we have to keep working to keep people engaged.”

Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, acknowledged that a significant portion of the 7th District is either suburban or exurban, “and we know that Trump is less popular in those parts of the country,” but said it still doesn’t look “particularly great” for Democrats.

“It’s sort of a wait and see district, is the best way to look at it at this point,” Skelley said. “We’ll have to see if things get better or worse for Republicans. If things get worse, perhaps Brat is in real danger.” ¦

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