RICHMOND, Virginia—On a brisk Saturday afternoon in Henrico County, Virginia, Tara Richardson opened her front door and burst into tears. Abigail Spanberger, the Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Dave Brat, had knocked on her door as part of a last-minute canvassing push before Tuesday’s election.
“I hope you win the vote!” Richardson said, sniffling and dabbing her eyes. “I really am so happy and so proud you’re out representing women and minorities—I don’t even want to say minorities, because that’s the worst thing, you’re people, you’re humans! We gotta stop the division. Please go and win. Oh my God.”
Spanberger—who was door-knocking with Supervisor Frank Thornton—hugged her, posed for a photo, thanked her for her support, and headed for the next house.
Has that ever happened before?
“Oh yeah,” she told me. “One house, I knocked on the door and the husband answers the door and goes, ‘This is going to be good. Alex!’ And she comes out and goes, ‘OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!’”
That response isn’t unanimous, though. Down the street from the Richardsons, Thornton asked the elderly woman who came to the door to vote for Spanberger.
“Well, you know, that’s why they call it a secret ballot,” she replied curtly.
Spanberger then offered her a piece of literature. She declined.
Virginia’s 7th congressional district, which loops through Richmond’s suburbs and then up to the north, was built in a lab to be safe for Republicans. The conventional wisdom circa 2013 was that Eric Cantor—then the powerful House Majority leader—would hold the seat for as long as he wanted it. Then a little-known college professor named Dave Brat came along.
Brat was one of a host of primary challengers targeting incumbent Republicans from the right in 2014. He ran as a fiscally conservative immigration hawk who would champion grassroots voters over entrenched special interests. His victory against Cantor rocked Washington power circles and sent shivers down incumbent spines.
Four years later, Brat faces a different kind of foe. Spanberger was a CIA operations officer stationed overseas before leaving the Agency in 2014 and moving back to central Virginia. Some Virginia Republicans say her TV ads—including one featuring her young daughters touting her CIA work—are among the best of the cycle. She’s raked in fundraising cash, and RealClearPolitics calls the race a toss-up.
“There’s a lot of positives for Republicans in that district, but that being said, the environment gives Spanberger a good shot,” said Tucker Martin, a former spokesperson for Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. “So that’s why I cop out and say it’s a coin flip.”
Meanwhile, Brat World is telegraphing confidence.
Ugly episodes have marred the race; her campaign apologized after learning volunteers left a note saying “Rot in hell Dave” at Brat’s home, where his kids found it. And a conservative Super PAC obtained Spanberger’s security clearance form through a FOIA request—a privacy violation that resulted from bureaucratic errors and disturbed members of the intelligence community.
But a few days before the election, both candidates were eager to talk policy. Asked if he backs President Donald Trump’s decision to send thousands of troops to the border to stave off a caravan of Central American migrants and asylum-seekers traveling to the United States, Brat reiterated his hawkish view of immigration policy.
“I think we do have to take strong action, since it’s already been reported that there’s Caravan Two and Three coming behind it,” he said. “They need to be vetted.”
Then he took a dig at Spanberger.
“My opponent, she will not return a phone call to you like I did to talk about policy,” he said. “She will not return a phone call to any press to explain her position on the caravan. She says, ‘I’m going to study things, I’m going to go up to D.C., I’m going to take a good hard look at it.’ Well, what’s your answer? They’re here.”
And she opposes caps on how many people can lawfully immigrate to the United States every year, he added.
Spanberger told The Daily Beast this criticism was “ridiculous.”
“First of all, I haven’t refused to discuss this issue, for starters,” she said. “Second of all, they’re not here right now, so that’s also an important piece of this.”
Her position: “This is an ongoing issue,” she said. “It isn’t some mass catastrophic issue that we need to be wholly reactive to. But we need to actually put good policy in place to recognize the fact that there are people who attempt to come to this country and we need to have policy in place for how it is that we are going to handle what has been happening for years and will likely continue to happen.”
As for Brat’s characterization of her view of immigration caps: “It’s an absolute made-up thing,” she said. “We’ve never discussed this, he’s never heard me discuss this.”
Caps are in place right now, she continued, they are necessary, and she would be open to discussing raising them.
Another central issue in the midterms is healthcare. As Trump’s Justice Department argues in court to end the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions, Republicans—including Trump—have promised to protect people with pre-existing conditions. But the healthcare bill Republicans passed in the House last year didn’t limit how much companies could charge for that coverage, meaning many people could have effectively been priced out of insurance. The Senate voted down that bill.
Brat said this concern is insignificant compared to the larger problems with health insurance prices under the ACA.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to get five asterisks down in the footnotes on that,” he said, “but the common-sense response to that critique of prices going up is the price under Obamacare has gone up 150 percent in the last five years and the mainstream press won’t report that.”
“The cost of Obamacare was up 150 percent premiums and $5,000 deductibles now, when the average person has savings of $500,” he continued. “So, nice try. They’re not even in the ballpark—if they want to talk about the price of healthcare. It’s a crazy argument.”
Spanberger, for her part, noted that Democrats have several proposals to try to make health insurance less expensive, including moving the open enrollment date for the Affordable Care Act from December to April, and automatically enrolling people in insurance plans with an opt-out option.
Speaking with The Daily Beast, Brat said he would be open to more tax cuts for the middle class even as the budget deficit has grown.
“The mainstream media, they discovered deficits as soon as we did tax cuts,” he said. “First time I heard the mainstream media talk about deficits, ever.”
“At the end of the year, we had to plus up the budget $400 billion to get 9 Senate Democrats,” he continued. “Not mentioned at all in the media, not paid for, $400 billion. So I find it a little ironic that Democrats and the mainstream media bring up deficits after we do $150 billion in tax cuts.”
Spanberger said she would be open to additional tax cuts, but worries about the deficit and the impact Republicans’ recent tax reform had on it.
“While I think it’s important to make sure that middle class folks have more dollars in their pocket, we also just robbed Peter to pay Paul to give permanent tax cuts to corporations,” Spanberger said. “If it’s really just an effort to make people forget about the fact that they permanently benefited corporations without helping middle class Americans, I don’t think we should allow for a singular distraction.”
In making the case for slashing taxes again, Brat noted John F. Kennedy’s support for supply-side tax cuts.
“When Dave Brat and JFK are in sync, and the current Democrat Party is off in Resistance Land, I think that’s the way that very clearly frames to the American people what’s really going on,” he said.