After nearly 50 years of Republican control, this Virginia House district could flip to the Democrats

Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., leaves the Capitol after the House passed a fiscal 2018 budget resolution on October 26, 2017.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images
Key Points
  • Virginia's 7th Congressional District has been a Republican stronghold for almost 50 years, but with polls in a dead heat this year, it may be at the vanguard of a blue wave of Democratic victories.
  • Republican Rep. Dave Brat has faced criticism that he has not been sufficiently accessible, a charge that also dogged his predecessor, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whom Brat defeated in a 2014 primary upset.
  • Democrat Abigail Spanberger, meanwhile, is running a hyperlocal campaign, characterized by hundreds of public events.

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.

A unique place

Swing districts have received a lot of attention this election cycle, but the 7th is not one of them. The widely respected Cook Political Report ranks the electorate as favoring Republicans by 6 points.

Instead, the 7th represents a political frontier, the outer limits of how far some analysts predict that the so-called blue wave of Democratic victories in the House could stretch this fall.

"This district has a significant structural advantage for Republicans," said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, which released a poll Monday showing Brat and Spanberger in a statistical tie.

"But that advantage can be overcome with strong turnout in the Richmond suburbs. Democratic turnout will determine which candidate prevails on Election Day," Bitecofer wrote in a report accompanying the poll results.

Voter turnout is closely linked to voter enthusiasm. And by that measure, Spanberger holds a commanding lead. The Wason Center found that Spanberger has a 16-point enthusiasm advantage over Brat, with 78 percent of Democrats telling pollsters they were "very enthusiastic" about voting on Tuesday, versus 62 percent of Republicans.

Abigail Spanberger, Democratic candidate for the 7th congressional district of Virginia, speaks during the Women's Summit in Herndon, Va., on Saturday June 23, 2018. 
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

This enthusiasm gulf was visible on the ground across the district during the three days that CNBC spent there earlier this month, talking to voters and attending candidate events.

Along more than 250 miles of mostly rural roads, an unofficial tally of political yard signs found that out of about 40 signs CNBC drove by, two-thirds of them were Spanberger signs.

Ed Dunphy was waving one such Spanberger sign by the side of the road outside the Oct. 15 debate between Brat and Spanberger in Culpeper. Dunphy was one of about 50 Spanberger supporters all waving signs and cheering as cars entered Germanna Community College.

CNBC did not see any Brat signs outside the event, but Brat campaign spokeswoman Katey Price said the campaign "did have supporters waving signs off the property" of the college.

A Culpeper resident for over 30 years, Dunphy laughed when asked whether this election felt different than the 2014 midterms. "Oh my God, yes! And it's because of the energy on the part of the Democrats, and all the people who are in opposition to Trump," he said.

Dunphy said he recently retired from a career spent working at the Culpeper Farm Center, "and I know a lot of farmers around here who are Republicans, and they said this year they just can't do Trump anymore."

To be sure, Trump has helped to shape the race in the 7th District this year, as he has in nearly every congressional race.

Louisa resident Donald Goetz, who is in his late 60s, said he voted for Brat in 2016. But this time, Trump has poisoned his view of the GOP.

"I'm a conservative, but the Republican Party, I don't even know who they are!" Goetz said. "My view is that we've got to get as many Republicans out of there as possible to stop Trump. And Brat is a blind follower of Trump."

Goetz estimates that in a lifetime of voting, he has only cast a ballot for a Democrat "about 5 percent of the time." This year, he said, "I already voted early for Abigail Spanberger."

These three factors will determine if Democrats will take back Congress
Three factors will determine if Democrats will take back Congress

Despite the huge shadow that Trump himself casts over this year's elections, the issues his administration has championed — tax cuts, immigration crackdowns and tariffs — are not especially popular among voters here, said Lauren Bell, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College and the co-author of "Slingshot," a book about Brat's first run for Congress in 2014.

"There isn't one kind of geography here, there isn't one industry, and there's not even one city. So a successful candidate needs to connect with lots of different blocs of voters. And what people really want here is for their member to be visible, accessible, and listen to them," Bell told CNBC in a recent interview.

"Trump's national issues are not as motivating and not as important here in the 7th as the question of, 'Is my member here?'" she said.

A question of access

The criticism that Brat has not been sufficiently accessible to his constituents has hung over the lawmaker for more than a year. Brat stopped holding open, in-person town hall events after he was met with a hostile crowd at a town hall in May 2017.

A spokesman for Brat told Politico this summer that the representative had found better ways to connect with his constituents than in-person town halls.

Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., leaves the Capitol after the House passed a fiscal 2018 budget resolution on October 26, 2017.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

CNBC visited the Brat campaign headquarters in mid-October, but senior campaign strategist Phil Rapp declined to discuss the state of the race.

For many voters in the 7th, Brat's retreat from the town halls represented more than just a shift in his preferred event format: It meant that Brat was becoming inaccessible. And people here remember what happened to the last politician who was not accessible enough to his constituents.

In 2014, Brat was a relatively unknown professor at Randolph-Macon College when he mounted a surprise primary challenge to Rep. Eric Cantor, the powerful House majority leader.

Cantor, who spent the vast majority of his time in Washington, failed to take Brat's primary campaign seriously — until it was too late. Cantor's defeat stunned observers inside the Beltway.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L), U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) (C) and U.S. Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI).
Getty Images

It also represented a sort of apex moment for the tea party movement, which had arisen largely out of dissatisfaction with establishment Republicans such as Cantor, whom they saw as too politically moderate. For Brat, an unknown, ideological conservative, to have taken down the No. 2 Republican in the country made him nothing short of a kingslayer.

Read more: These tea party House Republicans face tough challenges

But Brat's victory owed more to the way he ran his campaign than it did to sweeping political forces like the tea party, according to Bell, the political science professor.

"In 2014, Dave was out there listening to people, and how they felt neglected, and that's when people started to think about him as a real contender," she said.

Dave, the Goochland County voter, agreed. "I never liked Dave Brat more than I did the day he beat Cantor, because Cantor was even worse than Brat," he said.

"But now Brat's moved back into the Cantor camp, and he's waiting for the political action committees, and he'll entertain them at the lavish hotels in D.C. I don't see him come to town hall meetings here, and he doesn't speak to women, or come to women's focus groups," Dave said.

Brat's perceived avoidance of female voters has become especially problematic for him ever since he was caught on tape in January 2017 saying to a group of constituents: "Since Obamacare and these issues have come up, the women are in my grill no matter where I go."

"The 7th District has again made it clear that they want a representative that is attentive to them, and they don't want a representative who is not accessible to them," said Bell.

"It's been tragic to see how he's approached the work of being a member of Congress," said a longtime friend and former colleague of Brat's, who requested anonymity in order not to run afoul of their employer's policies about talking to the media. "The same thing that happened to Cantor in the course of a decade has happened to Dave in just a few years. Just as Dave has failed to learn the lessons of his own primary campaign, Spanberger has taken a page from his playbook."

Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., speaks with reporters after a news conference with members of the House Freedom Caucus at the House Triangle, where they criticized the House Republican's new healthcare plan, American Health Care Act, March 7, 2017.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Price, the Brat spokeswoman, pushed back on the notion that Brat had been absent from the district.

"Over the past two years, Dave has attended 500 events, including visits at town hall meetings, service organizations, community gatherings, schools, veterans groups, law enforcement and much more throughout the 7th District and talked to thousands and thousands of people throughout Central Virginia," she said.

A unique race

A career CIA officer who was born and raised in the 7th District, Abigail Spanberger is a formidable opponent by any measure.

But Spanberger is also running a very different kind of race than the one Brat is running. Hers is a hyperlocal campaign, characterized by hundreds of public events she has held at community centers, county fairs, public libraries and people's homes.

Spanberger's campaign website features an extensive calendar of events, detailing where voters can meet her and where her supporters will hold phone banks and canvassing events. For the month of October, the calendar lists 97 unique events.

Brat's campaign website does not include a candidate calendar, although on Wednesday, a fundraiser on Thursday with special guest second lady Karen Pence was being advertised on the site. Tickets started at $100. At the bottom of the invitation, it said, "This is a Private Event. We reserve the right to ask you to leave."

Spanberger, meanwhile, is hosting a free, public meet and greet at a restaurant in rural Louisa on Thursday, according to her campaign calendar. "Abigail will be there to listen to your story, your concerns, and share how she can make a positive difference in your life as a member of Congress," the event notice says.

The Oct. 15 debate between Brat and Spanberger only highlighted the differences between Brat's hypernational, party-focused campaign, and Spanberger's local, almost nonpartisan campaign.

Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., and his Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger participate in the Virginia 7th Congressional district debate at the Germanna Community College in Culpeper, Va., on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. 
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

During the 90-minute debate, Brat mentioned House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi 25 times, repeatedly seeking to paint Spanberger as a rubber stamp for what he called "the Nancy Pelosi liberal agenda."

Spanberger, meanwhile, said she would not support Pelosi for speaker if she is elected and Democrats take the House. She also sought to put distance between herself and national Democrats, telling the sold-out crowd of 400, "I am not my primary opponent, I am not Nancy Pelosi, and I am not President Barack Obama."

Spanberger also hammered Brat over his vote in favor of the massive GOP tax-cut bill. She accused the Republican of abandoning his commitment to fiscal responsibility by supporting a bill that will add trillions of dollars to the deficit.

One thing was notably absent from the debate: Donald Trump. Spanberger did not try to hang Trump's foibles on Brat, and Brat didn't seek to tie himself to the president.

The following night, however, at a Spanberger meet and greet that CNBC attended, hosted by the Democratic Latinos of Virginia group, it was clear that Trump and his immigration policies were front and center for some Spanberger supporters.

With voter turnout poised to make the difference on Tuesday, it's not just Democrats seeking to harness passionate feelings about the president.

Former Trump White House advisor Steve Bannon announced Tuesday that he will visit Brat's district sometime this weekend, in an attempt to rally Trump's base to turn out for Brat.

Brat's path to victory "is very, very tough, but it's doable," Bannon said on the John Fredericks radio program, where he announced plans to visit Virginia and North Carolina in the coming days. "This whole thing could come down to a couple of [House] seats that need to be saved."

The Brat campaign said it would not be doing an event with Bannon and it had only learned of Bannon's plan to come to the district from news reports.

Reinforcements from the far right, however, are not likely to sway voters like Dave, in Goochland County. "The Republican Party has just gone way to the other side of ultra conservatism," he said. "And I just don't want to be preached to all the time."

Like Dave, Louisa resident Goetz has broken with the party of Trump and Brat.

"I bond contractors, and when you insure people, you know that character matters," he said. "What 40 years of being a construction underwriter has taught me is that you stay away from people like Trump."