Virginia’s 7th Congressional District is represented by Republican Dave Brat. He’s taken heat from Democrats ever since he was caught on tape at a fundraiser, criticizing activists as being up “in my grill.”
The comments added fuel to the fire, energizing Democrats to take Brat on in the 2018 midterms. Still, the largely rural seat in Central Virginia is a long shot.
Drive about an hour north of Charlottesville, along beautiful backcountry roads, and you’ll wind up in Culpeper. One recent spring evening the town hosted the annual fireman’s parade.
The parade, with its cheerleaders, vintage cars and American flags, represents prime political campaign ground.
Ben Hixon is chair of the Culpeper Democratic Committee. He says since the election of Donald Trump the group has had a larger presence.
“As you can see we are growing, we’re getting more and more momentum and energy and I think we’re really on the cusp of a Democratic movement here in Culpeper,” Hixon said, waving his hand at the large float and crowd of cheering Democrats.
Donna DeAngelis is one of those energized progressives.
“We had no idea there were other Democrats and progressives in Culpeper,” she said. “We thought we were the only ones!”
The next target for these Democrats is their Congressman, Republican Dave Brat. An economics professor from Ashland, Brat voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to pass the new tax bill.
“He claims to be an economist and I don’t think he would know the economy if it came up and bit him,” said DeAngelis.
That energy against Brat has given Democrats hope that they can swing this majority Republican district. And that’s why the two candidates vying to take him on are both here tonight.
Winning votes in places like Culpeper is key to winning this district, says candidate Dan Ward.
“I’m not a career politician,” Ward said during an interview earlier in the day. “I did this because I felt it was going to take a background like mine to win in a district like this. A rural veteran, a farmer, somebody that lives and is from the heart of Republican support.”
Ward is an airline pilot who grew up outside Culpeper. He hasn’t held political office before.
He recognizes Democrats have to win in swing districts like this to take back power in Congress, and he doesn’t mince words about what’s at stake.
“If we don’t take a lever of power from this president and this complicit Republican Congress, I think we’re going to lose this country,” said Ward.
But the district isn’t just rural. It includes parts of the voter-rich suburbs outside Fredericksburg and Richmond. That’s where Democrat Abigail Spanberger, Ward’s opponent in the June 12th primary, says she’s seen the biggest shifts.
“We’re seeing a lot of people who have said ‘You know I previously counted myself as a Republican or I’ve previously counted myself as an Independent, though I’ve always voted for Republican,’ who are really looking for a different in options,” said Spanberger.
Spanberger thinks she can sway those voters. She’s a former CIA agent who worked in counter-terrorism. She now lives in Henrico.
Both candidates see healthcare as the top priority - followed by education, gun control and infrastructure projects like increasing broadband internet.
Their differences come out more in style, than substance. On the campaign trail Spanberger has consistently preached compromise over partisan rhetoric.
“I am not running against Donald Trump I am running for this seat,” Spanberger said. “I am running to represent the people in the seventh district.”
Either candidate will face an uphill battle. Despite high Democratic turnout in 2017, Governor Ralph Northam still lost the 7th District by almost four points.