MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — As an unknown economics professor, Dave Brat personified the grass-roots revolution that shook the Republican Party four years ago when he dethroned House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and was elected to Congress from a district outside Richmond.
But facing reelection after two terms, Brat is himself the target of a rebellion, this one by Democrats infuriated by President Trump’s election, which galvanized a new wave of political activism nationwide, particularly among suburban women.
In a recent fundraising pitch, Brat exploited the dangers he faces as he campaigns and invoked his improbable victory over Cantor to urge Republicans “across the nation to rally to my side.”
“The fight will be brutal,” Brat warned in the fevered appeal to Republican donors. “The Democrats will be out for political blood, and they will throw everything they have at me.”
With the 2018 midterm elections approaching, and control of the House and Senate at stake, a central question facing both parties is whether Republican incumbents in conservative suburbs can fend off Democratic challengers propelled by voter animosity toward Trump.
An area ripe for that test is Brat’s 7th Congressional District, a swath of central Virginia that includes rural Republican enclaves west of Richmond as well as suburbs outside the state capital that have grown more Democratic in recent years.
Ominous signs include Republican Ed Gillespie capturing only 51 percent of the district in the 2017 gubernatorial race. And Democrats for the first time since 1961 carried Chesterfield County, a large chunk of the district where demographic shifts have pushed the electorate leftward.
Sensing opportunity, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is targeting Brat’s seat. And Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist, has committed $30 million to elect Democrats in the midterm elections, including in Virginia.
By the end of December, Brat had raised $599,000 for his reelection campaign. But one of the two Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to face him in November — Dan Ward — was close behind, at $552,000. The other Democrat, Abigail Spanberger, had raised $386,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
“It’s going to be a very tough race because of the shift in his district and the anti-Trump movement,” said Rick Buchanan, chair of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation and a Brat supporter. “Right now, the Trump haters are over us in terms of enthusiasm. He has to energize his base.”
Republican leaders in Washington are monitoring the campaign but “alarm bells are not yet going off. Brat has the ability to make sure this is not a race,” said a senior Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
At the same time, the strategist said that “a lot can change when you have an opponent with $1 million attacking you. Brat certainly could do better. He needs to work harder at fundraising and having a message beyond that he’s the guy who beat Cantor. He has to tell people what he has done for the district.”
The challenges facing Brat, who declined to be interviewed for this article, also include lingering resentment among Republicans who supported Cantor — a factor that makes Democrats competitive in the district “for the first time in memory,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report.
“The voters who will determine what happens are Eric Cantor’s voters — establishment Republicans who didn’t take to Brat’s brand of politics and long supported Eric Cantor,” Wasserman said. “They are the swing voters. They could stay home. They could vote for the Democrats. They could vote for Brat. But they are not necessarily inclined to support Brat.”
Shaun Kenney, the former director of the Republican Party of Virginia who has been critical of Brat, said the congressman has “shown no proclivity to unite the base. He has done nothing to unite conservatives and populists.”
“Instead of mending fences, all he has done is pour napalm on the fences and roast marshmallows over the remains,” Kenney said. “Why would conservatives get off their couches and burn a weekend working for him?”
A Republican official in Brat’s district said the congressman encourages the divide by continuing to invoke Cantor, as he did at the start of his recent fundraising letter when recounting that he “overcame a 30-to-1 spending advantage and defeated the second most powerful Republican in the House.”
Brat’s letter was accompanied by another pitch from conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham, who began hers by recalling how the “little-known economics professor” ousted Cantor.
“It’s not a matter of people hanging on to the past — the one who can’t get over it is our congressman,” said the Republican official. “Rather than talking about what he has done, he’s sticking it in peoples’ faces. At some point, you have to move on.”
Brat brushed off questions about his reelection bid after a recent appearance at a Midlothian country club, where a lunchtime audience paid $30 a ticket to hear a moderator ask the congressman about “leadership lessons.”
“I don’t ever do politics,” Brat said, walking away from a reporter after the event. “All I talk is policy.”
‘A direct line from Trump’
Like most voters, Chrystal Doyle, a nurse who resides in the 7th District, knew very little about Brat when he challenged Cantor in the 2014 Republican Primary. What she did know was that Brat represented change — something she wanted — and that he was an economics professor.
“I trusted someone coming from academia,” she said. “I loved my economics professor in college.”
Four years later, Doyle, 39, is among the legions of women in the 7th District who immersed themselves in politics after the 2016 election and are working intensely to oust Brat because “he’s a shill for the tea party” and “he’s a direct line from Trump.” Their ranks include the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, a grass-roots organization that helped Gov. Ralph Northam (D) capture Chesterfield last November, the first time a Democrat had won the county in 56 years.
Following Trump’s election, groups of women showed up at public events to confront Brat over their concerns about Trump’s positions on immigration, health care and other issues, and Brat’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Their altercations were frequent enough that the congressman famously complained, “The women are in my grill no matter where I go.” He accused them of being paid activists, which enraged them and prompted them to wear their Zip codes on their sleeves to prove they were constituents. After several raucous town hall meetings, he stopped holding such events.
“I like talking to people, I used to have town halls all the time, it was all fine and dandy, and then — once President Trump won — boom!” Brat complained to the gathering at the Midlothian country club.
Brat described one town hall as a “debauchery fest” at which “the crowd is booing the preacher while he’s praying, launching f-bombs . . . I started a sentence, couldn’t speak.”
In his fundraising plea, Brat portrayed himself as a target of numerous antagonists, including the “Democratic Political Machine,” Steyer and the DCCC. He claimed the DCCC “is reaching out to their friends in the media to plant negative stories about me,” including the “hopelessly biased Washington Post,” which is “all-too-happy to print the hit pieces spoon-fed to them.” Brat regularly speaks to Breitbart News and appears frequently on Fox News.
Brat’s refusal to hold town hall meetings has exposed him to mocking on social media that he’s unavailable to his constituents, criticism that is similar to the barbs Cantor faced when tea party activists derided him as a Washington insider who had forgotten his district.
“So where is Dave?” taunts a recent ad posted on Facebook by a Democratic organization at the University of Richmond, which claims to be hosting a “scavenger hunt” for the congressman.
“Dave Brat is just not available,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “And that’s one of the great ironies. He called Eric Cantor out for being out of touch, and rightly. A few years later, Dave Brat might be in touch, but what he’s in touch with he’s not comfortable defending.”
To his supporters, Brat is espousing the conservative ideals on which he campaigned in 2014. In Congress, he is a member of the Freedom Caucus, the House’s most ardently conservative members.
“Dave has a message and the message hasn’t changed,” said Phil Rapp, Brat’s former campaign manager and chief of staff. “He’s still the same guy. He’s not afraid to talk to anyone.”
Even with redistricting in 2016, the region Brat represents remains largely conservative, with the chief credential many voters require is that “you’ve got an ‘R’ after your name,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political science professor. “For Brat to be defeated, a lot of things would have to break the Democrats’ way.”
The two candidates vying in the June 12 Democratic primary have the type of background that could attract Republican support. Dan Ward spent 25 years in the Marines, at one point piloting attack jets before serving as a military adviser in the State Department during the Obama administration.
Abigail Spanberger is a former CIA operative. Her supporters include a former employer, William Royall, a Richmond businessman who has given large sums to the Republican Party over the years, including $77,200 to Cantor and Cantor’s political action committee.
Royall, who has also donated to Democrats, said he regarded Brat’s challenge to Cantor as “offensive” and that he never considered supporting him once he succeeded the majority leader. “I don’t like his politics,” Royall said of Brat. “I still consider myself a Republican but the party has gone in another direction.”
For many Republicans, the pain of Cantor’s defeat lingers.
“It’s hard to switch your allegiance — bing! bing!” said Bobbe Scruggs, 89, a longtime Republican activist in Goochland, describing the experience of adjusting to Brat. “It was hard to get my head around it. It was like the tsunami. It overtook me.”
Still, Scruggs said she would vote for Brat in November “because I don’t want the godd—- Democrats.”
But, she added: “Some of the Cantor people still despise him. Everybody was close to Eric. He took us to Washington, we had lunch, he spent money on us. David Brat? All he wants is money and I don’t have lot of money to throw his way.”
Scruggs said her preferred choice for the 7th District won’t be on the ballot this November.
“I loved him to pieces,” Scruggs said of Cantor.
“David,” she said, her tone drained of enthusiasm, “is doing what he can do.”