It’s Saturday afternoon, and a large crowd has gathered in Manchester Middle School’s dimly lit auditorium. The temperature in the parking lot is pushing 90 degrees; inside, it tops 80.
It’s hot enough that U.S. Sen. Mark Warner has taken off his blue blazer as he addresses members of the Chesterfield County Democratic Committee and Liberal Women of Chesterfield County. Following remarks by Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic nominee for the 7th Congressional District, state Del. Dawn Adams and others, Warner jokes about Chesterfield Democrats’ growth in numbers.
“I remember … when the Chesterfield County Democratic Committee could have met in a small phone booth,” he says, garnering laughs this past Saturday as some attendees – approximately 200 have shown up to hear Warner speak – fan themselves. “You have come a long, long way.” The statement is more than a politician playing to his base. For the first time in modern history, it appears that a Democrat has a fighting chance at winning Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. That Democrat is Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative who lives in Glen Allen.
Spanberger trounced opponent Dan Ward in last week’s Democratic primary by a whopping 45 points. Her candidacy has already garnered national attention, and as of the last reporting cycle, Spanberger’s campaign had raised almost as much money as her Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Dave Brat.
Though Brat, a former economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, still stands a good chance of winning the Republican leaning 7th, political analysts say the district is in play like never before. And as national politics continue to dominate the headlines, Democrats hope to pin some of President Donald Trump’s more unpopular policies to the congressman’s back.
In the run-up to November, Democrats are planning to turn up the heat on Brat.
On a map, the 7th District is a long, skinny puzzle piece comprising the suburbs and rural enclaves just west of Richmond and Fredericksburg.
Once the home of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the 7th received national attention in 2014 when Brat outflanked Cantor from the right in the district’s Republican primary. Ever since, Brat has made a name for himself as one of the most conservative members of Congress, with right-wing media outlet Conservative Review handing him a 97 percent Liberty Score rating based on his voting record.
Brat is a longtime supporter of Trump, and according to data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, has voted in line with Trump’s positions 88.6 percent of the time. His stances on issues like health care have spawned heated opposition from Democrats. Brat’s last public town hall in Chesterfield, which took place at a church in May 2017, drew emotional outbursts, with at least one woman giving him both middle fingers and yelling “F— you, Brat!”
Both before and since, Democrats have worked to portray Brat as out of touch with his constituency and hard to reach. (The Brat campaign counters that the congressman has attended 400 meetings and events in the 7th since January 2017, and regularly accepts invitations “from school groups, rotary clubs, chambers of commerce and small businesses.”)
Democrats aren’t alone in their belief that Brat can be toppled in November. Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia, says that while the 7th still leans Republican, it’s lost its deep red tint over the years. The GOP’s shrinking margin of victory in recent elections seems to reflect this.
In 2012, 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 last year’s gubernatorial race, Republican Ed Gillespie beat Democrat Ralph Northam by 4 points in the 7th District.
With so many of the Trump administration’s actions dominating the headlines – such as the recent revelation that the Department of Homeland Security is separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and holding them in mass detention centers – Skelley says the race may be a referendum on the president and his party.
“The 7th District could be a very competitive district in the fall,” he says.
Spanberger’s dispatching of Ward – a strong candidate with similar policy issues – in the primary is a sign of her strength as a candidate, Skelley says. “The two of them both seemed like pretty decent gets for Democrats,” he says. “To see one blow the other one out of the water shows that Spanberger is a pretty impressive candidate.”
Skelley points to Spanberger’s national profile and fundraising. As of the last reporting cycle, Spanberger had raised $903,519, close to the $912,965 Brat has raised since the beginning of 2017. With a little more than four months to go, Spanberger has already raised more than three times what Brat’s previous Democratic challenger, Eileen Bedell, raised in 2016.
Furthermore, Skelley says Brat may no longer be a good fit for the district. While portions of the 7th remain rural and heavily red, the voter-rich suburbs of Chesterfield and Henrico are more moderate, and Brat simply may be too conservative for them. On the issues, Skelley says the economy ranks No. 1 with most voters. The economy is currently strong, but Skelley says there’s mixed information about how much a good economy helps an incumbent candidate like Brat. The next biggest issue is health care, on which Brat and Spanberger are starkly opposed: Spanberger wants to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare; Brat wants it repealed. Immigration – another issue Brat has been vocal about – could also play into the election.
Corey Stewart’s nomination as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate could also have a big impact on the 7th. Stewart, chair of Prince William County’s Board of Supervisors, has already come out swinging, saying he wants to “kick Tim Kaine’s teeth in.” Kaine has criticized Stewart for having both praised and been endorsed by individuals who espouse white nationalism. Skelley says the Republican leadership isn’t happy about the choice of Stewart, and that he may pull voters away from other GOP candidates.
“If Tim Kaine wins handily, that will influence turnout to some degree,” Skelley says. “If it’s looking really bad for Stewart, that could have ramifications for Brat as well.”
Recently, the 7th didn’t seem too keen on Stewart. His primary opponent, Del. Nick Freitas, beat Stewart by 27 points in the district.
All that said, Skelley has his reservations: “You still have to give the benefit of the doubt to Brat. We currently list [the race] as Republican leaning.” Much of the attention Spanberger has received nationally relates to her being one of many women to seek office in the aftermath of Trump’s election. While it may or may not help her in the general election, Skelley says having a female candidate can help drive enthusiasm for the Democrats.
Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at University of Mary Washington, says voters have Trump to thank for the rise in female candidates.
“One of the key impacts of the Trump presidency has been a real increase in the number of women running for office, and the number of women receiving Democratic Party nominations,” Farnsworth says. “Donald Trump has done more to intensify the gender gap than any other politician of the last generation.”
While a female candidate may help stoke Democratic enthusiasm, Farnsworth downplays its significance in the general election, saying there aren’t a lot of swing voters these days.
“Politics is increasingly tribal,” he says. “Not to belittle anybody’s victory, but about 98 percent of the vote is baked in, in any vote in America.”
Farnsworth issues a warning to Brat, referencing that much of Brat’s campaign against Cantor, the former house majority leader, centered on the idea that Cantor was spending more time with wealthy donors than his own constituents. “Congressman Brat needs to be careful not to be the candidate he said Eric Cantor was back in the day,” Farnsworth says. “It’s sometimes not pleasant to go to fully open town hall meetings, but it is part of the job as voters see it.”
Farnsworth agrees that the shadow of Trump will loom large in the election. It’s impossible to predict what will happen over the next few months, but it’s likely to come down to how well Brat manages to enthuse core Trump voters and mainstream Republicans, and whether Spanberger can tie Brat to Trump and get Democrats to the polls in the suburbs.
As for Spanberger, she believes that Stewart’s campaign for Senate will help her at the polls.
“I think that the voters of the 7th will overwhelmingly … reject a lot of his really divisive, angry rhetoric,” Spanberger says.
For its part, Brat’s campaign is already trying to paint Spanberger as beholden to a national liberal agenda.
“She is a radical progressive who’s backed by liberal special interests, everything from Emily’s List to NARAL to Moms Demand Action, and she’ll be beholden to those special interests once she goes to Washington,” says Katey Price, Brat’s campaign manager. “While she served her country in the CIA, and definitely thank her for that, the people that she’s aligned herself with [are] Nancy Pelosi-type liberals that she’s going to have to fall in step with.”
Price says Brat campaigned on the Virginia Republican Creed, and points to his work to repeal the Affordable Care Act and last year’s Republican tax cut plan as ways that he has delivered.
“We hear all the time from small businesses that they have the extra money to pay their employees a bonus, that they have the extra money to buy more equipment,” Price says. “What we hear from his constituents is that they see him, and they know what he’s doing for them. He’s fighting for them and has their back up in Washington.”
Back at Manchester Middle, Spanberger works the room, talking with people in the hallway outside the auditorium.
Standing near the entrance to the school’s front office, CCDC chairwoman Sara Gaborik has no doubt of her candidate’s chances.
“People know that she could be the candidate to beat Dave Brat,” says Gaborik, a local attorney. “I absolutely think she’s going to win. She has the ability to really get people motivated and involved.
“The blue wave is coming.” ¦
Correction: An earlier online and print version of this article stated that Dave Brat was an early endorser of President Donald Trump’s candidacy. Brat is a longtime supporter of Trump but does not endorse primary candidates. We regret the error.
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