Dems Aim to Flip the Script on Giant-Killer Brat in Va.
RICHMOND – At the height of the Tea Party movement, Dave Brat stunned the political world by knocking off House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary, then winning his seat that November. Now, just four years later, Brat may again be in for the race of his life, but this time as the incumbent facing a wave of energized Democrats determined to knock him out of Congress and turn the district blue.
The Virginia lawmaker isn’t necessarily a top tier target for Democrats, who see districts that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 or where Republican incumbents retired as central to their path to the House majority. President Trump won here by 6.5 percentage points in 2016 and the district backed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie by 3.7 points last fall even as he lost the state by a wide margin. Still, Democrats say VA-7 has the right blend of Democratic energy and Republican lethargy to become competitive in November.
“The district has suburban voters who are rejecting Trump, Democratic voters who are newly energized, and disaffected Republicans fleeing Dave Brat’s Tea Party-ism,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic operative who got his start in Virginia politics.
“It is an uphill race. But it’s not pushing a boulder up the hill.”
Republican officials concede the district may be competitive, and some are increasingly worried about the status of Brat’s campaign and the challenge he may face. Former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who previously ran his party’s campaign committee, said he doesn’t consider it a top-tier race, but noted that Brat could be vulnerable to a wave election.
“I think David’s got to run through the tape,” Davis said. “This is the kind of year where the Republicans see a big storm coming. They just don’t know, if it’s a strong windstorm, if it’s a category one or a category five.”
One national Republican strategist familiar with the commonwealth put it more bluntly: “Brat is walking around Washington with a sign that says ‘target me.’”
Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their odds in this district, which covers suburban Richmond but also stretches north-south into rural counties with deep Republican DNA. Two candidates vying in the June 12 primary for the right to face Brat both present strong credentials – Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative, and Dan Ward, a Marine veteran and commercial pilot.
Spanberger has more institutional support, with endorsements from major national groups including EMILY’s List and End Citizens United, and a number of local Democratic county and elected officials backing her campaign, including all three state delegates who unseated Republican incumbents last fall. But Ward hails from the rural, Republican part of the district, and argues he could broaden the base of support for the party in the fall. Both national and Virginia Democrats say either candidate would be a strong contender against Brat in the fall.
Both challengers concede there are few policy differences between them, particularly on the major issues: Both support an assault-weapons ban and universal gun background checks, and both back Medicare X, a public option proposal from Sen. Tim Kaine, though neither opposes single-payer health care. In interviews, both emphasized the need for broadband Internet access in the rural parts of their district. The difference between them is mainly one of approach and style.
In a candidate forum Monday hosted by the Richmond University College Democrats, Ward consistently turned his attention to the Trump administration, criticizing the president and framing the race through the lens of what he argued are Republican abuses of power.
“Our institutions are what protect our democracy and our institutions are under assault from the inside out,” Ward said in an interview prior to the forum. “These folks are like termites, they’re doing it from the inside out. We need to take the House of Representatives.”
Spanberger, meanwhile, said in an interview that while there are very few issues she agrees with Trump on, she aims to be more muted in her criticisms of the current administration, instead focusing more on the ins and outs of policy and her positive vision for the district.
“He talks a lot about Trump, and a lot about standing up to Trump, and I talk a lot about putting us back on the right path. They’re very different pivots,” Spanberger said.
To win this district requires surging Democratic turnout and crossover support from Republicans, and both candidates are developing strategies for support from across the parties. Ward argued his background as a farmer would help him win votes from rural Republicans.
“I’ve always thought in order to win in this district it was going to take a rural veteran,” he said.
Spanberger argued she also has strong crossover appeal given her background, though her base of support could hail from the heavily Republican suburban area where she lives.
“We have across the board been able to attract a lot of those people,” Spanberger said. “People will say, ‘Even though you’re a Democrat…’
“It’s about bringing civility to the conversation and being a Democrat who’s willing to talk to Republicans, being a Democrat who’s willing to talk to independents,” she added.
For Republicans, there are major signs of concern in the district that, historically, has not been competitive. Last fall, Democrats knocked off three GOP incumbents in the House of Delegates whose seats overlap the district, and both Spanberger and Ward outraised Brat in the fourth quarter of 2017, though he led them in cash on hand. A Brat spokesman declined to comment or make the congressman available for an interview to discuss the race. The two-term lawmaker recently told Politico: “All I talk is policy.”
To avoid a competitive race, Davis said Brat would have to mend fences with establishment Republicans in his district four years after defeating Cantor.
“Has he built bridges or has he just gone back to his base? He can’t win this with base voters,” Davis said. “He’s going to need some more moderate Republicans that he’s not traditionally catered to.”
Nationally, Brat has built bridges – Speaker Paul Ryan’s PAC maxed out a $5,000 donation to his campaign last year, along with those of more than a hundred other incumbents, and Rep. Steve Scalise, the Republican whip, is headlining an annual breakfast fundraiser for Brat next month.
Still, Republican operatives are prepared for the race to become competitive and believe an injection of outside money could prevent a damaging loss.
“Do I think that Brat is vulnerable? Yes. But Brat will be saved from electoral defeat because national Republicans will save the seat,” said the national strategist familiar with Virginia, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “It won’t be anything that he’s done or will do because he’s not really putting himself in a position to win.”
Both Democrats are themselves potentially vulnerable to outside attacks. Republicans have made two things central to their campaigns this year: talking up their tax cuts, and linking Democrats to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
On the tax bill, Spanberger criticized it as “wholly irresponsible” because it added to the national debt, and said she doesn’t support making the individual tax cuts, which are currently set to expire in a decade, permanent. Ward said he supports repealing the entire tax law outright. Though Republicans are likely to run ads saying Ward would back tax hikes if he becomes the nominee, he said he welcomes that debate.
The “tax break these folks have received has been nominal,” he said of middle-class cuts compared to those for the wealthy and corporations. “It’s been pennies compared to where most of the money is going.”
On the other issue, Pelosi, the candidates diverge. Spanberger praised the former speaker, but said she would “very much like to vote for someone else,” and said the party needs new leadership. She acknowledged, however, that Republicans were “100 percent” likely to still run ads linking her to Pelosi if she becomes the nominee, and admitted they might be somewhat effective regardless of her position.
Ward, on the other hand, said he’d have no problem backing Pelosi as leader – though he said he could also vote for a challenger depending on who emerged. When asked about ads linking him to Pelosi and the potential to damage his campaign, he responded: “Let them run the ads.”
“Why do we Democrats allow Republicans to demonize our people?” he said. “If we acquiesce to that pressure to replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker, whoever follows her is going to be Demon No. 2, and we have to stop giving them that space.”