CULPEPER, Va. – Wearing a dress shirt emblazoned with a huge bald eagle and an American flag, Steve Mourning is the kind of voter that Republicans in this part of Virginia need more of this year: a fired-up conservative.
Pulling up to a congressional debate here earlier this month, Mourning said he was excited to help get incumbent GOP Rep. Dave Brat re-elected to a third term. "The economy is going great, tax cuts are good for everyone, and we want more of that going forward," Mourning told CNBC.
But about 60 miles south, in Goochland County, Virginia, CNBC met another kind of Republican, named Dave. He said he voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 but will vote for Brat's Democratic opponent, retired CIA operative Abigail Spanberger, in Tuesday's election.
"I voted for Trump 'cause I didn't want another Clinton in the White House," said Dave, who declined to give his last name so as not to alienate his neighbors in this conservative farming community.
"But I don't think people in Washington, D.C., care about anyone outside Washington, D.C.," Dave said. "Nobody gives a darn about anything else. So I'm voting for Abigail Spanberger, 'cause she seems like she's actually gonna do something. And I'll tell you what, if I were a richer man, I'd donate some money to her candidacy."
The 7th District, which stretches over 100 miles from the rolling farmland outside Culpeper in the north to the suburbs south of Richmond, has never been represented in Congress by a woman. And Republicans have held the seat for almost 50 years. The last Democratic congressman from the district retired in 1971. In the most recent election here in 2016, Brat trounced his Democratic opponent by 15 points, and Trump carried the district by 7 points.
But this year, a tide of political and demographic forces has put the solidly Republican 7th District in play for the first time in recent memory. And not just in play — it's a dead heat between Brat and Spanberger, according to the most recent polling averages. Democrats need to flip at least 23 seats to win a majority in the House.
If Brat, a former economics professor, hangs onto his seat, it will be in part because of people like Steve Mourning, solid conservatives who credit Brat and his fellow Republicans in Congress for the strong economy.
But if Spanberger defeats Brat in a huge upset, it will be in part because of people like Dave, registered Republicans who feel Brat has chosen Washington, D.C., over Goochland County, and who see in Spanberger a candidate who is singularly focused on their needs.
It wouldn't be the first time, however, that an outsider has upset politics in the 7th District.