Sunday, February 5, 2023

All eyes are on Chesterfield in the 7th District race

Brat, Spanberger jockey for votes in the suburbs

Democratic candidate Abigail Spanberger addresses supporters at a meet-and-greet at Walton Park Sunday. A former CIA operative, Spanberger hopes to unseat Brat in the 7th. ASH DANIEL

Democratic candidate Abigail Spanberger addresses supporters at a meet-and-greet at Walton Park Sunday. A former CIA operative, Spanberger hopes to unseat Brat in the 7th. ASH DANIEL

Though this past Sunday evening brought mild temperatures and a cloud-filled sky, roughly 175 people assembled at Walton Park’s recreation center found reason to be indoors.

The draw? Democratic candidate Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative who’s challenging U.S. Rep. Dave Brat for control of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. In front of the crowd – nearly all of whom sported Spanberger buttons on their chests – the candidate got right to the point at the meet-and-greet.

“Who wants to flip the 7th District?” Spanberger asked the responsive crowd before pivoting to the topics of health care, public schools and the environment.

Spanberger’s question is no longer mere campaign rhetoric. In a county that has historically leaned conservative, Spanberger is hoping to tap into a growing base of suburban Chesterfield voters who are increasingly voting Democratic. According to recent polls, the odds are growing more favorable for a Democrat to win the 7th District, which stretches from Culpepper to Nottoway and includes densely populated western Chesterfield.

A Monmouth University poll released last week gave Spanberger a 47 percent lead over Brat’s 42 percent in the district. Conversely, another poll, conducted by The New York Times and Siena College and released earlier last month, gave Brat a 47 percent lead over Spanberger’s 43.

Based on the polls, political analysts are now calling the race a toss-up, a surprising development for a district that was considered rock-ribbed Republican not long ago. Between the backlash against President Donald Trump and Chesterfield’s increasingly diverse population, conditions may be right for Democrats to eke out a victory.

The reason races like the 7th are being followed so closely is that Democrats hope to flip the Senate and House of Representatives in the mid-term election this November. Even if Democrats only take control of the House, it would serve as an impediment to the Trump administration’s legislative agenda.

Because of this, the race has attracted attention across the nation. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, Esquire, Elle and other publications have featured the race in their pages, commenting on Brat, Spanberger, the grassroots organization Liberal Women of Chesterfield County and how the county itself may serve as a bellwether for other suburban areas of the country.


In the four years since Brat defeated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for the Republican nomination of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, much has changed. Riding a wave of Tea Party sentiment during the Obama era, Brat’s outflanking of Cantor on the right gained him national attention at the time.

Today, he represents a district that isn’t as red as it once was. While the 7th still spans a swath of rural Virginia, it also has population hubs in Chesterfield and Henrico; with the 2016 redistricting, Brat lost his support base in Hanover and gained territory in Chesterfield.

None of this bodes well for Brat’s reelection chances, says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia. Though the 7th is still Republican leaning, Skelley warns that Brat may be too conservative for his constituency, and that between his politics and support of Trump, Brat has drawn heated local opposition. At his last public town hall in Chesterfield in May 2017, members of the crowd frequently interrupted Brat. One woman in the audience held up both middle fingers and yelled “F— you, Brat!” In July 2017, Spanberger announced her candidacy, saying she was motivated to run when the House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act of 2017, which aimed to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act. Since her announcement, the race has made national news.

But more important than Brat or Spanberger, analysts say, is another political figure whose shadow looms large: President Donald Trump. “President Trump is the reason that we’re talking about this district right now as a competitive district,” Skelley says. “If there were a President Clinton, we would not be talking about the 7th District being competitive.”

Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, agrees, calling Trump the “single biggest thing” in the race.

“This is a very difficult time to be a Republican incumbent in Virginia. President Trump is very unpopular here,” Farnsworth says. “Trump’s ability to dominate the news cycle day after day means that whatever you want to talk about as a candidate is likely to be overwhelmed by the news coming out of Washington.”

Much has been made of Brat’s support of Trump; according to data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Brat votes in line with Trump’s positions 89.1 percent of the time. Curiously, though Trump’s approval rating has hovered around 41 percent, Spanberger has focused her campaign on Brat.

“In a case like this, you really don’t need to [bring up Trump],” says Farnsworth of the decision, adding that voters who are against Trump may vote Democrat without additional prodding. “For a Democrat [candidate], a little bit of conversation about Trump goes a long way.”

In addition to the polls, Skelley says fundraising is another way to gauge the state of the race. As of the end of June, Spanberger had raised $1,351,549 since the beginning of 2017, compared to Brat’s $1,332,894, according to figures from the Virginia Public Access Project’s database. Though the third fundraising quarter ended on Sept. 30, those figures weren’t immediately available. “One of the traditional strengths of an incumbent is the ability to have far more resources than your challenger,” Skelley says. “Brat isn’t a great fundraiser, so she’s roughly been in parity with him.”

One sign of trouble for the Brat campaign may be the “Terror High” ad that has filled television and computer screens since it began airing Sept. 6. The attack ad highlights that Spanberger once taught at a Saudi-funded school that later ran into controversy, in part because a former valedictorian was charged with aiding al-Qaida and convicted of providing support to the terrorist network. Though released by the Congressional Leadership Fund – a conservative PAC – and not Brat’s campaign, Farnsworth suggests the ad’s an indication that Brat and his supporters are feeling threatened.

Phony political signs have also cropped up, featuring Spanberger’s name and voicing support for impeaching Trump, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and opening the nation’s borders. The signs have since been taken down.

“Candidates that are viewing themselves as far ahead do not generally employ such tactics,” Farnsworth says. “These are things that are increasingly appealing the more desperate you are.”

Skelley agrees.

“I think Republicans are scared of losing that district,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any other way to look at it.”

The Spanberger campaign has also gone negative, calling out Brat’s vote on health care in a recent ad titled “Jody.” The ad features a Goochland woman talking about her son’s diagnosis of diabetes and saying she felt “betrayed by Dave Brat” for his vote on health care.

Asked about Spanberger, Kim Drew Wright, founder of Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, says she sees a lot of enthusiasm for the candidate.

“Even some Republicans are saying that they’re going to vote for Spanberger, that they like her and they’re going to vote for her,” she says.

Discussing the possibility of a Spanberger victory, Wright says it may just happen.

“We are just in the sweet spot, time-wise and location-wise,” Wright says. “Ever since the election in 2016, the rest of the country and the world are looking at us. I think we’re the canary in the coal mine in some ways to gauge what’s happening in the country.”

For his part, Ken Davis, a member of the Chesterfield County Republican Committee and a longtime Brat supporter, says he’s “calling for victory in the election.”

“He will have another term,” Davis says. “It’s not going to be as easy as before, I’ll grant that, because the Democratic Party has put a great deal of money into running Spanberger.”


As much as Trump, campaign tactics and the issues may impact the final vote in the 7th, the result could simply come down to a divide between suburban and rural.

“It’s unquestionably a major aspect of this election,” Skelley says.

To win, Brat needs to have high turnout in rural places like Powhatan, but still have respectable returns from suburban Chesterfield and Henrico. Spanberger must do the same, but in reverse.

“The biggest challenge that Republicans are facing these days in Virginia and elsewhere, it’s really in the suburbs,” Farnsworth says. “Traditional Republicans who are more educated and more suburban, these are the folks who are much harder to get to vote Republican in the age of Trump, and this district is a great example of two very different constituencies.”

It’s for this reason that many political analysts are looking at Chesterfield as a prognosticator for future elections across the state and country. “Chesterfield in many ways is the pivot point in Virginian politics, and this race is compelling,” Farnsworth says. “If big, suburban counties like Chesterfield [will] no longer provide a big advantage for Republicans, Republicans are going to have a tough time winning statewide elections.”

Going by the numbers, Chesterfield and the district have been increasingly turning blue. Six years ago, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the district by a comfortable 16 points; in 2016, Brat defeated Democratic challenger Eileen Bedell by 15 points and Trump won by 8 points. In the gubernatorial race last year, Republican Ed Gillespie beat Democrat Ralph Northam by 4 points in the 7th District, but Northam beat Gillespie in Chesterfield by nearly 700 votes; it was the first time the county had gone to a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since 1961.

While noting Spanberger’s campaign spends plenty of time in the rural parts of the district, campaign communications director Justin Jones says Chesterfield is an important part of their strategy.

“Chesterfield does hold a large percentage of the vote in population, so it’s certainly an area we want to pay attention to,” Jones says.

Phone and email requests to Brat’s campaign staffers seeking comment weren’t returned.

Rep. Dave Brat reaches out to shake the hand of a veteran at a town hall in Henrico last Friday. For an hour and a half, Brat and fellow Congressman Phil Roe listened to veterans discuss how to improve the services they receive. ASH DANIEL

Rep. Dave Brat reaches out to shake the hand of a veteran at a town hall in Henrico last Friday. For an hour and a half, Brat and fellow Congressman Phil Roe listened to veterans discuss how to improve the services they receive. ASH DANIEL

It’s just before 3:30 Friday afternoon and about 70 people, mostly U.S. military veterans and their spouses, have come to the Henrico County administration board room for a town hall meeting with U.S. Reps. Dave Brat and Phil Roe.

For more than 90 minutes, the Republican congressmen stand at the front of the room and listen intently to retired soldiers and learn about areas in which the federal government can improve the quality and delivery of its veterans’ services.

After the meeting, asked by a reporter what he thinks of polls showing the race as effectively a dead heat, Brat suggests that the media has aided Spanberger by failing to report her true positions on a number of issues.

He notes her support for U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine’s Medicare X proposal, which is seen as another step toward a government-run health care system, and her opposition to tax cuts passed earlier this year by the Republican-led Congress.

“The Democrats have gone so far left, it’s unbelievable,” Brat says. “I don’t think the district has changed that much. It’s usually the economy. If the growth rate continues to go through the sky, I find it hard to believe people are going to vote against their pocketbook.”

Conventional wisdom says Brat will have to dominate the rural areas of the 7th District to overcome Spanberger’s support in the population centers of Henrico and Chesterfield. Brat insists he’s trying to “win them all again.”

“That’s my goal,” he adds. “I haven’t changed my policies. No one knows what Spanberger’s policies are.”

Back in Walton Park, surrounded by supporters, Spanberger reminds the crowd of what’s at stake.

“In case you haven’t heard, we are a tossup district,” she says. “It is a tight race. We have just five weeks left, and it is winnable.”

Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we incorrectly reported that Abigail Spanberger’s campaign had pulled down phony political signs that misrepresented Spanberger. Spanberger’s campaign staffers didn’t remove the signs. 

6 responses to “All eyes are on Chesterfield in the 7th District race”

  1. Susan Goetz says:

    My husband is very, very Conservative. He even voted for Dave Brat the last two elections, but no more. This year, because of Dave’s fear mongering and unquestioning support of a lying president, he is supporting Abigail Spanberger. And he’s not alone!

  2. Tom Reed says:

    So, in this entire article, neither of 2 reporters bothered to ask Spanberger her position on taxes, healthcare or immigration? She’s running a stealth campaign. Her ads make no mention of her position on these issues. Why? Will anyone in the media ask her? How does she feel about the Democrats lurch toward socialism? Will ANYONE ask her these questions or continue to softball her through November. The citizens of the 7th may be in for a rude awakening if they vote without all the facts!

    • Mark Fagerburg says:

      Abigail Spannberger is hardly running a stealth campaign- her positions on issues are clearly stated on her website here:
      Brat is the one who ran on a stealth campaign. He promised to change from Eric Cantor’s ways and listen to the people. But the only people benefiting from Brat’s votes are corporations (remember, they’re people now!) and wealthy individuals. Brat has done all he can to undermine people’s access to healthcare. As a father to a child with a pre-exisiting condition, I live in fear of legislation that will allow Health Insurance companies to not insure my child- or only at rates so high they are unaffordable.

    • Derek says:

      “Democrats lurch toward socialism”

      Maybe questions for you.. Do you have kids? have they attended public school? After all credits and refunds, how much federal taxes do you pay? How many miles on public roads do you do each year? What other public services do you rely on, or would want to use in an emergency? I assume you have great health care through your job, that’s awesome, but many people do not.

      Many people I talk to who talk about socialism like it is the devil himself, pay little in federal taxes, have multiple kids going to school and would never be able to pay their way in a true capitalist model.

      • Eric McGrane says:

        Its not so much about socialism…its about the legal and proper role of federal and state governments. Most of what the federal government does is not Constitutional…and therefore, essentially not legal. Now if you move these initiatives to the STATE level, then I can agree. We could certainly dive into topics like roads, schools, and healthcare. For example, of the three, only roads are Constitutional (legal) at the federal level.

        This is why I cannot support a candidate like Spanberger. She really has NO IDEA what are the Constitutional constraints to her *federal* authority, should she win her seat. She just spouts off about this program or that initiative, showing no sign of comprehending what her authority really would be. And since she’s going to be swearing to uphold the Constitution, its kinda a big deal to not either 1) know whats in it, or 2) know whats in it and not care.

        Abigail Spanberger: Unfit to Serve the 7th

  3. John says:

    It’s clear from the last few elections that fear is the driving force from the GOP. Brat has been no different this time. Instead of letting us know what he has done or supports, he just puts out fear mongering ads attacking Spannberger.

    Unfortunately, the average Republican is driven to vote again their best interests by believing those attacks. Obama is going to storm your home and take away all your guns!.. Socialism!!, they are going to take the federal taxes (that you don’t pay much of) to pay for some hippy to buy lobster on the California coast.

    It amazes me how many republican voters still support the GOP tax bill even though they saw next to no increase in their pay. Corporations who were given a massive tax windfall did not increase pay for everyone, they used the money to purchase back stock.

    The GOP has no plan for health care and yet seeks to destroy the ACA even though it affects GOP voters. They have managed to sell some idea of a completely free market health plan even though every example of deregulation of an industry has resulted in the consumers being screwed.

    The GOP is gutting the financial reforms brought in after 2009 even though millions lost their jobs and homes because of the actions of that same industry.

    The GOP has gutted the EPA and continues to sell the notion that regulations to protect our water and environment is bad for business.

    I just dont understand how people are still voting for Brat and his like. Do republicans so admire the wealthy that they will personally sacrifice everything to ensure that the rich live the American Dream?

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