ASHLAND, Va. (AP) — Ask anyone at Randolph-Macon College about the tiny school's professors running for the seat held by deposed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and you'll get glowing remarks about their intellectual vigor, their connection with students and even their playing style during intramural basketball games.
But ask someone whether they're voting for Republican economist David Brat or Democrat Jack Trammell, a sociology professor, and the conversation generally stops. The two popular, highly respected figures on this campus of 1,300 have muddled traditional political allegiances.
Even a liberal-leaning Democrat such as biology Professor Charles Gowan is stumped whether he'll vote the party line when the two men meet in November to elect a successor to Cantor.
"I don't know," said Gowan, who has known both candidates for more than 15 years.
Brat created the unlikely matchup when he stunned Cantor in the Republican primary Tuesday.
President Robert R. Lindgren doesn't hesitate to state a preference: "I vote for Randolph-Macon."
Lindgren and Gowan acknowledge that Randolph-Macon is on nobody's radar, and this high-profile race will likely change that, at least until November.
"We recognize no one knows us," Gowan said during an interview Thursday in the college's welcome center in a former bank. "So this is a chance for people to look closely at us, and everybody's excited here because they're confident people will like what they see."
Mindful of the attention the college hopes the race will bring to the school, visitors these days are handed a thick information packet that includes bios and photos of Trammell and Brat. Their images also are on the school's website.
Most on campus say the attention shown has been rivaled only by a 10-year-old prodigy who enrolled there in the 1990s.
Affiliated with the Methodist Church, the liberal arts college was originally located in Boydton in Southside Virginia, the state's tobacco-growing region. Prophetically, the college was named after two congressmen: John Randolph of Roanoke and Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina.
It relocated in 1868 to Ashland, a town of approximately 7,000 along a rail line that regularly backs up traffic when trains roll through. The rail line defines the western end of the campus, an expanse of brick dorms and academic buildings amid towering oaks and maples.
One of its most famous graduates is Macon Brock, the founder of the national discount retail chain Dollar Tree.
Brat is an economics professor who has been published widely in wonkish journals, while Trammell is an associate sociology professor whose writings are as varied as his interests — from "Star Trek" to vampires.
On campus, Brat and Trammell are familiar figures, though both have been lying low since the nation's political spotlight was cast at Ashland.
They both play intramural basketball with students. The beefier Brat has a strong inside game, while the leaner Trammell is "quick and nimble," said Gowan, 54, who joins the two on the court despite a few aches and pains.
Neither man is a wallflower, but Brat has made his political intentions known for years. He's worked on a volunteer basis for a state senator in Richmond and is always game to engage in conversation. His father, who paid Brat and his two brothers $10 a book to read the classics, says the professor was an early reader of great philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.
"Dave has a strong personality," Gowan said. "He's always ready to tell you his opinion. But he also listens."
Trammell has broad interests and is known for bringing his border collie to campus on occasion. He fishes, he farms, and he's a prolific writer. He's written on the slave trade in Richmond and fishing on the James River. He's currently writing a vampire novel.
While the two have political differences, it hasn't divided them on campus.
"We're already a place that has diverse political viewpoints," Proctor William T. Franz said. "They're both passionate people — they are passionate about their students, they are passionate about this college."
Students of both men are effusive about them. Each is always available to talk after class, and neither discussed their political intentions in class.
Derek Dittmar, a rising junior from Raleigh, North Carolina, is legally blind. He knows Trammell through his work with students with disabilities and as his faculty adviser.
"He's a very driven person. He's constantly pushing himself to try and do new things," Dittmar said. They both share the same interest in "Star Trek" and "The X Files."
Mikhaila Calice, a political science student, supported Brat at rallies during his primary campaign. On the prospect of the upcoming campaign, she said, "It's really fascinating and exciting."
At Randolph-Macon, everyone who was asked said they expected a spirited but civil campaign, which they said will reflect well on the school.
"If it spurs people to look at us, which we would love, I'd be very pleased with that result," President Lindgren said.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .
Randolph-Macon College: http://www.rmc.edu
- Charles Gowan
- Randolph-Macon College