RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - The eyes of the nation are on Virginia's 7th Congressional district which covers parts of Henrico and Chesterfield, among others.
Four years ago, Republican Dave Brat pulled off a major upset when he beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary. Now, the same thing could happen to him, but this time it could be a Democrat taking the seat.
Abigail Spanberger is hoping to capitalize on a new wave of political activism to take over a district that has been held by Republicans since 1971.
Due to a recent shift, due largely in part to a referendum on President Donald Trump, the district has been labeled a "toss-up," by political analyses such as The Cook Political Report.
But Brat isn't so sure those assessments are correct.
"I think we're still going to win," Brat said. "I don't see it as a toss-up."
Brat, a former economics professor, has lived in Virginia for more than 20 years. He served on the Economic Advisory Board for two Virginia governors, was an advisor to State Sen. Walter Stosch and also served as president of the Virginia Association of Economists. He is confident in the work he's done as a congressman for the last four years.
"We've passed good bills," Brat said. "We've passed the Puppers Bill to end painful, dangerous experiments on puppies at the VA hospital. We've done great work on the opioid crisis and on human trafficking."
The congressman has also made waves during his tenure. He has been criticized for not holding enough town halls around his district and for not being available for specific constituent groups.
In 2017, a video surfaced with Brat saying the phrase, "the women are in my grill." According to the Washington Post, the quote was said in reference to "groups of women who showed up at public events to confront Brat over their concerns about Trump's positions on immigration, health care and other issues, and Brat's opposition to the Affordable Care Act."
Brat said he was just repeating their own words.
"I repeated in a joke form what they were saying on my Facebook page," Brat said. "They were making that claim. I didn't even know what that thing was."
Brat also said he hasn't held town halls because of the atmosphere at some he attended in the past few months.
"I won't have town halls because my opponent was at one and people who were there to support her were swearing and screaming at the pastor during opening prayer. I couldn't get word in for 90 minutes," Brat said. "There is a reason we won't do town halls, but we are meeting with constituents in every way we can. I'm doing moving town halls to meet with everyone."
Spanberger has been conducting town halls around the district ever since she announced her campaign.
She said in the primary her campaign held 120 events across the district. Spanberger believes her availability, coupled with her background and outlook for the district, helped her earn 73 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
That strong support is why she believes the district is ready to be flipped to into Democratic hands.
"That happened because people across this district decided that where we are is no longer where they want to be," Spanberger said.
Spanberger moved to Henrico County as a child and graduated from Tucker High School. She says she always knew she wanted to pursue a career in public service. Spanberger's career began as a federal agent working in narcotics and money laundering cases, and eventually led her to the CIA where she was a case officer working to recruit people and collect valuable intelligence that would inform the president and policymakers on national security.
"Fundamentally the purpose, the mission I was serving was to protect this country from a terrorist threat and to enable people in Washington and throughout the world to understand the greatest challenges facing this country in the realm of national security," Spanberger said.
In 2014, after her daughter recommended moving back to the place "where everyone we love lives," Spanberger and her husband decided to move back to Virginia. She came back to Henrico County, got a job in the private sector and started a Girl Scout troop before launching her campaign.
Her motivation to seek office was becoming disheartened by the 2016 election, but the health care vote in 2017 solidified that choice.
"I think we need people who are committed to service, people who are committed to being accountable representatives in their communities and I think we've reached a place where politics has become so hyper-partisan and driven by ideology, I think we need new people in Washington working on behalf of the people who elected them," Spanberger said. "After the health care vote last year, there were so many people across our community who had really significant concerns related to the future of their own health and their own financial stability would be because of that vote and the fact that we had a House of Representatives who voted this way because of partisan ideology and not understanding the needs of the people in their district."
Stories like those of a personal friend whose child suffers from a hereditary disease are what inspired her to take on that fight.
Spanberger has plenty of public service in her background, but she has never worked in politics. When asked if that could be a liability, she said she considers it an asset.
"I think it's a benefit because I am used to serving this country," Spanberger said. "I am used to serving a Republican president and a Democratic president. I am used to serving a mission and being focused on how we could most effectively reach a goal."
Spanberger said 2,377 volunteers have registered with her campaign and said she has raised more money that Brat during the campaign without taking money from corporate PACs.
"On our June 30 filing, just over 45 percent of every dollar we've raised, and that was over $1.3 million, came from came from a 7th district resident - a voter," Spanberger said.
This, accompanied with Democrats carrying Chesterfield County in the 2017 governor's race for the first time in a decade, is a sign of what could come.
Spanberger has been open that she won't be supporting Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to continue in that role. She is one of the dozens of Democrats who say the same thing, but she does not consider that a sign of division within the party.
"I personally believe we need new leadership at every level," Spanberger said. "That's one of the reasons I'm running among first-term members of Congress. We need new people, new voices."
Brat hopes voters will continue to believe he is the voice of the people in the 7th district.
"What people want is for people to go up to D.C. and tell the truth and keep to their promises," Brat said. "A lot of times, people go up to the swamp and are swayed by money and votes. I've kept to pro-business and small federal government."
Brat also argues the federal government is spending too much.
"As far as the budget and deficits, it's true," Brat said. "The untouchable up there are spending on both sides. They are addicted to the spending at the federal and then you get favors to favors and it's pay-to-play. What most people don't know is tax cuts are completely paid for. There are about $150 billion, they grow at 3 percent. They are paid for. Another reason the budget goes up is to get nine Senate Democrats in the budget process we had to plug up the budget $400 billion. So tax cuts, $150 billion, paid for to get nine Senate Democrat votes, $400 billion not paid for."
Spanberger said the tax bill increased the deficit, and those who voted it need to shoulder the responsibility.
"I think overall Congressman Brat can find plenty of little places here and there to blame the Democrats for things, but at the end of the day it was our Republican House of Representatives that voted on a tax bill that cut revenues at a time where we are still pulling ourselves out of a recession," Spanberger said. "That added trillions of dollars to our deficit, and that is something that our current Congress needs to take responsibility for."
Brat says he defied the administration and has stuck to policies while in office, but says he does support Republican leaders.
"So on President Trump, at first I opposed the White House and my own house leadership on the Obamacare fix that we had because the prices still went up, so a few of us got together, we got the price to go down, so then I agreed to it," Brat said. "On the budget, I opposed the White House and our leadership and I voted no on the tax cuts. I completely support the Trump agenda and our House leadership, and I voted yes, and we have 4 percent economic growth to show for it. So, I go issue by issue by issue. It's not about personality, it's about policies that are best for my district."
A third candidate is also in the race for the 7th District - Libertarian Joe Walton. He believes the close race will benefit his campaign and said he targeting disgruntled Republicans and moderate Democrats.
"Our campaign is focused on the traditional Republican voters who are unhappy with Brat and the center-left voters who realize Spanberger is too liberal for them," Walton said. "We are aiming to win in a plurality."
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