HENRICO COUNTY, Virginia — Dave Brat pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in congressional history here four years ago when he defeated Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, on the grounds that Cantor had grown too out of touch with Republicans.
Now, a week before Election Day, Brat is fighting for his political life against Democrat and former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger, who is gaining momentum by hitting him on the same basis. Brat, who has found his home in the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, is too ideological and too distant, she says — just look at his support of a health care bill that would have weakened protections for people with preexisting conditions.
Brat’s strategy to survive: rage at the media.
“Write this down,” Brat said to reporters at a fall festival in Henrico County on Saturday. “Preexisting conditions was in the bill we passed. I voted yes for it. My opponent’s saying nonsense. And the press won’t write the news stories. So if you guys would report the news parts, it would be helpful.”
Brat is dealing with a problem House Republicans are facing across the country. Voters are unhappy with their health care repeal efforts last year. The tax bill Republicans passed is a flop with voters, too. The problem is so acute that the leader of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), has been traveling around the country trying to shore up support for onetime Tea Party stars who are now some of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress.
Just four years ago, Brat was the face of the conservative insurgency, unexpectedly dethroning one of the most powerful Republicans in America. Now he’s relying on the Republican cavalries to get him over the edge in a district he won by 15 points only two years ago — from Trump’s controversial former adviser Steve Bannon to Vice President Mike Pence.
“I have heard people say Brat fell prey to the same thing that happened to Eric Cantor,” Lisa Turner, a 60-year-old canvasser with Spanberger’s campaign said of her door-knocking. “That he is more concerned with his position in the Freedom Caucus.”
The decline of the Republican insurgency
A Republican wave swept a band of ultraconservatives into power in the House eight years ago, and they’ve been gaining power since. Many of these lawmakers found a home in the Freedom Caucus, a cohort of the House’s most conservative politicians.
The group’s power and influence has surged since President Donald Trump’s election. The Freedom Caucus has cultivated Trump’s ear, forcing Republican Party leadership to listen to its demands. These conservative lawmakers have used this power to move the debate on issues like health care and immigration further and further right, often tanking negotiations altogether. They’ve caused problems over spending deals and secured political wins for Trump, using the House investigation into Russia’s election meddling to sow distrust in the FBI.
Brat, an economics professor who is one of the most conservative lawmakers in Congress, is part of that power circle, a group that’s gained a reputation for being ideological to the point of obstructionist.
In a district that seems increasingly open to hearing what the Democrat has to say, Brat, who four years ago ran bragging about his bona fides, is now trying to convince voters he’s misunderstood.
“No. No. No. No. No!” Brat said, growing increasingly agitated when asked about preexisting conditions. “The newspapers won’t report any news.”
For voters, the issue is not ideology but relevance. Is he truly helping his constituents?
What once empowered the Republican Party is now directionless
The moment Congress let out for August recess, Meadows, who chairs the Freedom Caucus, hit the campaign trail. First, he went to South Carolina for a state Republican Party convention, then Iowa for a Tea Party rally. Some barbecues in Florida. Then fundraising in Virginia.
“This is all for the House majority,” a Republican campaign aide said of Meadows’s schedule. Former Breitbart chief Steve Bannon is also campaigning for Brat in the final week.
Lawmakers like Brat and Rep. Rod Blum in Iowa are among the most vulnerable ultraconservatives in the 2018 midterm cycle for a number of reasons: the boundaries of their suburban districts aren’t as favorable to Republicans anymore, the demographics of their constituencies are changing, and Democrats are banking on record levels of voter enthusiasm to bring them a wave election.
But above all, these conservatives have a problem: Their accomplishments are so unpopular that they have to find a way to change the narrative.
Brat, a boisterous and imposing voice in Washington, has tried to moderate his image. His ads call him “mild-mannered.” He even recorded a campaign video surrounded by puppies touting his bipartisan legislation to stop medical research testing on dogs. And he’s been resting on the stability of the economy to make the case that the Republican agenda has been working.
But it’s clear Brat has both attracted the ire of the resistance and positioned himself too far to the right for voters in his own party.
“Brat is a Freedom Caucus Republican who has got his own rigid worldview ... that doesn’t resonate with the Richmond business community,” Dave Wasserman, an election watcher from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said. “They are used to working with pragmatic, business-minded Republicans.”
And where a safely Republican district has protected him in the past, a moderate Democratic message is now resonating. All Brat can say is that the media is covering the wrong story.
“In this district, there hasn’t been any unease in the last four years when I ran,” Brat told reporters as he shook hands with constituents at the festival. “Health care is a big issue, but [voters] don’t know that because the newspapers won’t report any news. They report the horse race. Report the news.”
The story of a super-conservative stuck in a blue storm
Democrat Spanberger’s most viral moment came in their only debate, when Brat used the phrase “Nancy Pelosi liberal agenda” more than 25 times to describe his opponent.
“I question again whether Congressman Brat knows which Democrat he is running against,” Spanberger retorted. “I am not Nancy Pelosi. And I am not President Barack Obama. I am a woman who grew up in Henrico County, who grew up in this community, who was taught service, hard work, and a commitment to the belief that the American people can be anything.”
Then came her tagline: “That’s who I am,” she said. “Abigail Spanberger is my name.”
The story of Virginia’s Seventh District is in large part a story of Richmond’s urban sprawl. In 2017, the district was 70 percent white, 18 percent African American, 7 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian. A growing tech scene and suburban development is rapidly changing this community, and a district that typically favors Republicans by 6 percentage points more than the national average is now tied in the polls.
There were parts of this district that didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. And Brat, who has both supported the president and seen the president’s “strong endorsement,” has had a hard time separating himself from his hyperpartisan brand.
“He’s pretty close to Trump, and I think that’s going to be hard for him right now,” said Brian Murray, a 42-year-old constituent who usually votes Republican but remains undecided in this race.
Trump’s rise, Spanberger told Vox, made voters pay attention to Brat — and they saw an ideologue who joined the Freedom Caucus.
“He’s stood in the way of bipartisan legislation that is important to people in this district,” Spanberger said. “He has blown up the deficit. He has voted against spending bill after spending bill. He isn’t supportive of our workers. ... He refuses to hold town halls. He doesn’t engage, and he lectures far more than he listens.”
Spanberger said she wants to make “politics more personal again.” And her moderate positions have made it hard for Brat to meaningfully ding her as too liberal for the district.
A former federal law enforcement agent and CIA operative, Spanberger supports a public option for health care, is against Medicare-for-all, opposes sanctuary cities, and is very diligent about talking fiscal responsibility. She says Republicans rushed into unnecessary corporate tax cuts, but she doesn’t support repealing them. And when it comes to Trump, Spanberger’s team notably avoids any mention of investigating the president. She says that’s not a priority for voters in the district.
The stakes are high for Republicans. They’re even higher for conservatives.
The Tea Party wave has done some shape-shifting over the past eight years.
“Trump’s politics have overtaken everything on the Republican side, so it only ends up being are you with him or are you against him?” said George Washington University political scientist Lara Brown, who has written extensively on the Tea Party movement.
The Freedom Caucus chose Trump, but along with the power they brought, they had to accept some things that misaligned with their worldview: deficit-busting budgets and the abandonment of cuts or other changes to programs like Social Security and Medicare.
“If they had gone against their president and the Congress, then what do they tell people? Our best chance to pass something didn’t pass because we fell on our sword?” Brown said.
But in Trump’s Washington, conservatives have a lot of power.
If united, the most right-wing faction of the House wields enough votes to stop any Republican-led legislation in its tracks. And they have a direct line to the president if things don’t go his way — leverage points lawmakers like Meadows have used to make an unpopular health care bill move further to the right in the House and stir up contention over immigration policy.
The midterms are all-or-nothing for these conservative lawmakers: If Republicans maintain power, even narrowly, these conservatives will grow more powerful than ever before. If Democrats take back the House, they lose everything.
But it’s not lost on anyone that some of their own are the chopping block. Brat, once the rising star in the Republican Party who ousted the second-ranking Republican leader in the House, could be leaving Washington.
“What goes around comes around,” Wasserman said.