KEY POINT: In Virginia, more than 70 people showed up to meet Brat’s opponent at the Wilderness Run Farm winery on Thursday night. It was one of more than 110 community events Spanberger said she has hosted in recent months. Brat, by contrast, has not held a town hall meeting in over a year, and Spanberger accused him of “not making himself available to everyday voters."
Brat made headlines last year when he complained to a conservative group that liberal women were dogging him. “Since Obamacare and these issues have come up, the women are in my grill no matter where I go,” Brat said back then. “They come up — ‘When is your next town hall?’ And believe me, it’s not to give positive input.” “It is absolutely the criticism that Brat levied against Cantor, which is he’s disconnected, he’s not here, and that he was out of touch with the district,” Spanberger said. “I absolutely think Brat has fallen into that same pattern."
BY RACHEL BADE, POLITICO
SPOTSYLVANIA, Va. — Democrat Abigail Spanberger stood on a wooden bench at a vineyard in central Virginia and railed against “the prioritization of ideology over informed decision-making” — a pointed jab at her opponent, House Freedom Caucus member Dave Brat.
Spanberger, a 38-year-old former CIA operative, has barnstormed this traditionally Republican stronghold accusing Brat of putting the Freedom Caucus’ intransigent conservative politics over the needs of constituents, and pitching herself as a pragmatist who could represent them better.
“We need people in Washington who are committed to creating legislation that’s actually impacting communities rather than guided by Republican ideology,” Spanberger said in an interview.
Brat is one of two high-profile Freedom Caucus members at risk of losing their seats this fall to a potential Democratic wave. It's an unfamiliar feeling for members of the hard-line group, whose typically comfortable electoral positions have emboldened them to push a far-right platform.
Brat and Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania were elected in the throes of the tea party backlash against then-President Barack Obama — Brat staged a shocking upset against Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican leader — but are now fighting to survive a very different kind of backlash against the current president. Their politics — and shifting makeup of their districts spurred by redistricting — are providing ample fodder for Democratic challengers.
Perry’s Democratic opponent George Scott has held up the incumbent’s push to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as proof that he’s an extremist unfit to represent the district. Scott, a pastor political novice who wants to join the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus,” said Perry’s support for an impeachment bid “that was repudiated by Speaker [Paul] Ryan says a lot [about] how far that particular group is swinging.”
“We can’t just continue the path of demonizing the opposition,” he said. “We have to make progress in a bipartisan way.”
Brat’s seat has been in GOP hands since the 1970s. But the Cook Political Report has downgraded the seat from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican” to, now, “toss-up.” Spanberger has outraised Brat every quarter since entering the race. And some senior House and Virginia Republicans worry Brat is in jeopardy.
“I think everybody should be concerned about the race,” said former Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck, who predicted Brat will survive if he runs a good campaign. “He needs to run as hard as he can.”
The campaigns of Perry and Brat did not answer multiple requests for comment or an interview. Brat texted that “I don’t like being part of stories with a false premise from the start,” though he declined to elaborate.
But it's clear the two men have adopted very different campaign strategies.
Brat, a former economics professor who’s railed against leadership in the past, has softened his tone lately, mending his previously fraught relationship with senior Republicans in a way that’s caught their attention. One top Republican was shocked when Brat broke with Freedom Caucus members and voted to allow consideration of a massive spending bill on the House floor. (He ultimately opposed the measure.)
Brat has also steered clear of the Freedom Caucus leadership’s push to impeach Rosenstein, focusing instead on legislation he’s passed that affects his district. The congressman frequently talks up the GOP’s tax reform package as well as his work on opioids and human trafficking.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) have returned the favor for Brat by helping him raise money. And the National Republican Congressional Committee, which rarely helps conservatives who fail to pay their "dues" to the election arm, is helping Brat strategize and analyze election data.
“We stand squarely behind Dave Brat,” NRCC spokesman Matt Gorman said, declining to say whether Brat is paying his annual fees to the campaign arm.
Perry, in his race, has stuck with his usual fiery rhetoric, even though his seat is now on Democrats’ radar. GOP leadership sources were surprised when he refused to back a farm bill because he believed it defies conservative values, despite the benefits to his district. And they say he’s made little attempt to shroud his scorn for leadership’s immigration plans or the idea of supporting Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, known as a center-right dealmaker, for speaker.
Insiders chalk up the difference in their approaches to the circumstances of their races. Brat faces a steeper challenge than Perry, whose home turf still leans heavily Republican. Due to 2016 redistricting by the courts, Brat lost conservative Hanover County and gained more suburban neighborhoods outside Richmond.
Due in part to the change, Trump carried Brat's district by a bare majority in 2016, compared to the 56 percent Mitt Romney garnered four years earlier, according to Cook.
Perry, however, has also lost part of his stronghold in southern Pennsylvania. His newly-drawn map now includes Dauphin County, which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and tens of thousands of voters from the district represented by retired moderate Republican Rep. Charlie Dent.
It’s one of the reasons Scott argues that he has a real shot taking down a man many in the House view as a future Freedom Caucus chairman. Scott said his campaign's internal polling shows him within striking range.
Cumberland County Republican Chairman Greg Rothmans scoffed at the suggestion that a Democrat could oust Perry. While Perry has a new district, Republicans in the area know him well from his time in the state house, Rothman said. And those who voted for Dent, he said, wouldn’t distinguish between the two men.
“Republicans are Republicans,” he said. “Scott Perry is very popular here.”
Not all Perry fans are so sure, however. Adams County Republican Chairwoman Betsy Hower, a longtime Perry supporter whose locality was cut out of his district, said Perry just lost a huge chunk of his base in the latest court-ordered redistricting.
“He has a brand new district, and when you start out with a brand new district and nobody knows you, it’s not easy,” Hower said.
Meanwhile in Virginia, more than 70 people showed up to meet Brat’s opponent at the Wilderness Run Farm winery on Thursday night. It was one of more than 110 community events Spanberger said she has hosted in recent months. Brat, by contrast, has not held a town hall meeting in over a year, and Spanberger accused him of “not making himself available to everyday voters.”
Brat made headlines last year when he complained to a conservative group that liberal women were dogging him.
“Since Obamacare and these issues have come up, the women are in my grill no matter where I go,” Brat said back then. “They come up — ‘When is your next town hall?’ And believe me, it’s not to give positive input.”
“It is absolutely the criticism that Brat levied against Cantor, which is he’s disconnected, he’s not here, and that he was out of touch with the district,” Spanberger said. “I absolutely think Brat has fallen into that same pattern."
Brat’s office and allies have rejected that claim, however, pointing to his “mobile office hours.” Under the new system, constituents are invited to sign up to meet with him one-on-one for 10 minutes. The meetings, his supporters argue, are more productive than public events that inevitably are filibustered by progressive activists.
Republicans also argue that Brat easily carried his district after the last 2016 redistricting. They also note that failed 2017 GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie carried Brat’s in the midst of the GOP’s repeated failure to repeal Obamacare and well before tax reform had passed. If the base turned out then, they’ll turn out now, they say.
“Brat is taking his race seriously and that’s what we want to see, someone invested and not falling asleep at the wheel,” said one Republican campaign source monitoring the race closely.
But few at the vineyard, an event was packed with Democrats, felt that way. Vietnam veteran and former business executive Bill Shugarts complained that Brat “doesn’t listen,” while retired couple John and Cathy Romine, both independents, railed about Brat being too close with “mean-spirited” Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, the Freedom Caucus leaders.
“He’s way too conservative,” Cathy said of Brat. “Extremes are never correct. We need more middle of the road people.”