The Republican who shocked the world 4 years ago could lose because of redistricting

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, before the vote on the House farm bill — which failed to pass — at the Capitol on May 18, 2018. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

When Dave Brat shocked the political world in 2014, beating the man who was set to become the next speaker of the House in a Republican primary, his congressional district was more favorable to Republicans than it is now.

That political shift, combined with high Democratic intensity, has made a district that should be an easy Republican win into a tossup. The outcome of Brat’s contest against Democrat Abigail Spanberger will speak volumes on election night — less than three weeks from now — about the size of a potential Democratic wave.

Brat, an economics professor, easily beat his Democratic opponent in 2014 and had little trouble in 2016. But less noticed was that President Trump’s margin of victory in the Seventh Congressional District was far smaller than Mitt Romney’s had been in 2012.

Romney won 57 percent to President Obama’s 41 percent in the district, which stretches from the west side of Richmond, up through rural central Virginia to the western portion of Fredericksburg and then further up into the exurbs of Washington, D.C.

But Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a margin of only 6 points, 50 percent to 44 percent.

That disparity reflects the changes after the state was forced by the courts to redraw a number of its districts, in a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. After the new maps took effect in 2016, Brat’s district was without Hanover County, which went 70 percent for Brat in 2014. If the current district lines had been in place in 2012, Romney’s advantage would have been 11 points, rather than 16, according to a New York Times analysis.

The district “became less Republican,” John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, told Yahoo News. It remains “a fundamentally Republican district,” he said.

But Findlay also allowed that the contest “is going to be close, for sure.”

Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger gestures during a debate with Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, a Republican at Germanna Community College in Culpeper, Va., on Oct. 15, 2018. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Spanberger is a former CIA officer who served on the West Coast and in Europe, and speaks four languages. She is running as a bipartisan problem solver, trying to portray Brat as an ideologue more interested in winning arguments than fixing problems.

“I’ll work with anyone: Democrats, Republicans and the president, when it’s good for Virginia,” she said in a recent ad. In another, she said she opposes “abolishing ICE,” which has become a rallying cry for more liberal Democrats.

Spanberger spokesman Justin Jones said he expects the race to be so close it could come down to hundreds of votes. The loss of several thousand reliable Republican votes through redistricting, then, would factor heavily in the result in that scenario. Brat won with about 218,000 votes in 2016 versus Eric Cantor’s 222,000 in 2012, the previous presidential year.

Jones also said that the statewide, top-of-ticket contest between incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Corey Stewart is helpful to Democrats whose names are down the ballot — like Spanberger.

Stewart has become somewhat of an outcast even among Republicans in Virginia because of his enthusiasm for defending the Confederate flag and his associations with white supremacists. He has not raised enough money to have a presence on TV, and Kaine — who has raised $21.7 million to Stewart’s $2.3 million — has lately been running hard-hitting attack ads on Stewart.

Raising Stewart’s profile at the last minute may be a tactic to further rouse Democratic voter enthusiasm in key congressional races in the state, like Brat and Spanberger’s, and to turn off some Republican voters who are on the fence about going to the polls.  Brat has never had to run toward the middle before, and is selling himself on a basic tax- and regulation-cutting platform, focusing on economic growth.

Republicans are telling voters that Spanberger is more liberal than she appears. Though she has said that she will not support California Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker if Democrats regain control of the House, Findlay said that “other than that, she is totally in lockstep with the Democratic agenda.”

On Thursday morning, Trump turned his attention to the race and tweeted his support.

“Congressman @DaveBratVA7th is one of the hardest working, and smartest, people in Washington. He is strong on the Border, Crime, the Military, our Vets and the 2nd Amendment. He is a powerful vote for MAGA and loves the Great State of Virginia. Dave has my Total Endorsement!” Trump tweeted.

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