Virginia’s 7th Congressional District may be best known for the surprising upset victory of political neophyte Dave Brat over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the 2014 Republican primary election.
During his time in Congress, Brat has been an active member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, most recently in the news for his hard-line stance on illegal immigration. In early 2017, he voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act which is what drew his 2018 opponent into the race.
In last night’s Democratic primary, former CIA agent Abigail Spanberger won a decisive victory over Marine veteran Dan Ward to challenge Brat in November. Spanberger didn’t just win the primary – she dominated with 73% of the vote. Her 33,198 votes were more than any other House candidate in this year’s Virginia primary contests.
Her primary opponent, Dan Ward, raised as much money as Spanberger and benefitted from an additional $200,000 in outside spending, but complained that “She’s had the red carpet laid out for her in the national media and gender is really the only reason why.”
It’s true that Spanberger was one of the women featured in national news stories centered around 2018 being the year of the Democratic woman. But that’s not what won it for her and it’s not what she talked about. Her campaign had over 1,000 volunteers and she attended over 100 meet and greets with voters. On primary election day, she visited each of the ten counties in the district. She outworked her opponent and she stayed on message – which is, among other things, affordable and accessible health care for all.
Running for Congress wasn’t part of her strategic plan. Spanberger has three young daughters and she and her husband recently settled their family near where she had grown up after stints abroad as a CIA operative. However, she was motivated by incumbent Dave Brat’s vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act – a vote he cast prior to the bill even being scored from the Congressional Budget Office. She, and other women in the 7th District, wanted to make sure that Brat knew how they felt about his health care vote. Their persistence prompted him to complain that “women are in my grill no matter where I go.” The Spanberger campaign had some fun with his statement at a recent “Bergers over Brats” picnic grill party and after her primary victory, women took to social media to declare that Brat would see even more women up “in his grill” in the coming months.
Rep. Dave Brat complained women from @IndivisRichmond & his district were “all up in his grill.” He’s about to have 1 more woman up in his grill until November after her #VAPrimary win tonight – and we plan to help elect @SpanbergerVA07 to represent #VA07! https://t.co/BGuXfRc9WI
— Indivisible Guide (@IndivisibleTeam) June 13, 2018
Women organized and worked for Spanberger, including Delegates Debra Rodman and Dawn Adams – who were both part of the 2017 wave of Democratic women in Virginia that flipped 11 of 15 General Assembly seats from red to blue. Their districts in the suburbs north of Richmond are part of the changing political equation in the 7th Congressional District which has long been thought of as a safe Republican seat. Suburban Henrico and Chesterfield counties are roughly 60% of the district’s population and will be prime battleground areas in the fall election.
Spanberger will need to appeal to not only fired up Democratic women, but moderate and even conservative women who may be turned off by Dave Brat and Donald Trump. For all Brat’s hard right partisan fire, Spanberger’s tone has been cool blue with a pragmatic emphasis on finding bipartisan solutions to the most pressing problems. That’s the right tone to take in a district which carries a +6 Republican rating. However, the district is changing, and both the Cook Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball have rated the district as just “lean Republican.” As Eric Cantor learned in 2014, incumbents shouldn’t get too comfortable here.
Christine Matthews is the President of Bellwether Research and Consulting and an expert contributor to Gender Watch 2018.