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In Virginia, Women Form an Insurgency to Try to Topple Republican Dave Brat

MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — The Liberal Women of Chesterfield County did not exist when Rep. Dave Brat, propelled by Tea Party-infused energy, shocked the Republican establishment in 2014 and defeated the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in a primary triumph here that presaged even greater political upheaval two years later.

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Michael Tackett
, New York Times

MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — The Liberal Women of Chesterfield County did not exist when Rep. Dave Brat, propelled by Tea Party-infused energy, shocked the Republican establishment in 2014 and defeated the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in a primary triumph here that presaged even greater political upheaval two years later.

Now they’re all up in his grill.

Brat stunned Cantor, building an army of grass-roots supporters on the ground that was aided in the air by conservative commentators like Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin. Then he made waves of another kind last year, complaining to Republican supporters about women, their health care protests, their dogged presence and his aforementioned grill.

They haven’t gone away. A race that was once considered solidly in the Republican camp is now rated a tossup, and the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County are stirring women to come out in such great numbers that the Democratic nominee, Abigail Spanberger, a well-credentialed former CIA officer, may make history of a different sort in a district that has been deeply Republican for decades.

“Republicans are now feeling like me when the Tea Party emerged,” said Becky Stuart Conner, a member of the Chesterfield County group.

For Republicans, Brat’s race is a bulwark in their defensive perimeter, the kind of district they must win to keep control of the House. The area’s mix of affluent suburbs and conservative rural stretches resembles the Ohio district where a Republican candidate in a House special election Tuesday, Troy Balderson, clings to a narrow lead.

For Democrats, Spanberger’s candidacy represents a test of the breadth and effectiveness of their coalition of newly emboldened female voters aghast at President Donald Trump’s White House tenure — and the ability of fed-up women to build an insurgency of their own.

“I think it is ironic, humorous,” Spanberger said of Brat being on the receiving end of a rebellion. “I read it as a cautionary tale of coming into the scene saying you want to do things differently, and not really doing it differently.”

Virginia’s 7th Congressional District runs from the exurbs of Washington to counties south of Richmond, roughly tracking the decisive battles of the Civil War where Ulysses S. Grant ultimately defeated Robert E. Lee. In some of the more rural stretches, Confederate flags still hang from front porches.

But far more common are the booming commercial and housing developments closer to Richmond that are eating into what was once a conservative redoubt. Two counties that hug the commonwealth’s capital are likely to determine the outcome: Henrico, where Spanberger lives and which increasingly leans Democratic, and Chesterfield, a onetime Republican stronghold that is showing signs of change.

The area has had a surge of college-educated women; Henrico has gained about 65,000 residents since 2000, and Chesterfield has added 82,000. As those numbers have increased, so have the fortunes of Democrats. Signs of change in Chesterfield County were evident in the governor’s race last year, when the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, won the county by about 700 votes.

Brat is hardly alone among Tea Party-aligned Republicans who are now in highly competitive races in Texas, California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New York and other states where the swelling suburbs have chipped away at the rural Republican strongholds.

“Republicans are in the same dilemma Democrats were in when people started to become a little dissatisfied with Barack Obama,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, which conducts surveys of Virginia voters. “They couldn’t get enough of the benefits of enthusiasm for Obama and couldn’t get rid of enough of the baggage of Obama. This is amplified in the Trump era for Republicans.”

In Virginia’s 7th District, many of the women have been engaged in their communities, through school groups and locally based organizations, but are becoming involved in campaigns for the first time.

“They are novices in politics but not novices in being organized and engaged,” Spanberger said.

Kim Drew Wright said after Trump’s election, she posted on Facebook to find like-minded women in what came to be known as the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County. Her first meeting drew 100 women. Now the group has more than 3,000 members on its private Facebook page.

They have fused social and political activities, with meetings called to write postcards for candidates over drinks or coffee, hat-knitting sessions, and broader-based activities to get out the vote broken down largely on a school-district level.

“It brought us super local but made us realize how important it is to be connected,” Wright said. Over dinner at the Shaved Duck, a restaurant that was not open when Brat was first elected, Stuart Conner said she was so shy that, at first, she could not bring herself to even attend a meeting. Now she finds herself working on the effort several days a week. Her friend and dinner companion, Kristi Glass, said that the group “really got people together to get into politics instead of crying and drinking about the election.”

When Sara Gaborik, another group member, worked the polls at a recent local election, “so many people said, ‘I have never seen a Democrat here before,'” she recalled.

Gaborik said she moved to the county from Richmond several years ago for the same reason so many other women have — for the schools and lower housing prices.

“A lot of folks in Chesterfield started saying, ‘I am a Democrat, and I believe in progressive values,’ and we started saying, ‘There are more and more of us,'” she said.

Along with other women, group members have gone to events for Brat and tried to get in his grill.

“I give them credit for putting a target on Dave Brat’s back,” Kidd said.

Brat no longer widely publicizes campaign events, instead requiring that people sign up in advance. He declined several requests for an interview.

Ingraham said in an email that it was “critical” that Brat “stay close to the people — addressing their needs, listening to their concerns and answering their questions. Cantor lost because he ended up identifying more with the Swamp than the 7th District.”

Like many new Democratic candidates, Spanberger has tried to inoculate herself against Republican assertions that she is a liberal in the mold of Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader. Spanberger said that “under no circumstances would I vote for her to be speaker.” She also points to her background tracking terrorists for the CIA and her work on drug and money-laundering cases in law enforcement.

Still, Brat has a reserve of strength and not simply from the more zealous who helped him defeat Cantor. He also has history on his side; Republicans have held the seat since 1970.

At the Chesterfield farmers market, the two women watching over the master gardener table showed how close the contest could be. Susan Oakley said she would back Brat because of his hard line on illegal immigration and his support for Trump’s wall along the southern border. Marti Miller said she was considering Spanberger.

“There is so much anger and viciousness in our politics today,” she said. “I would like to see civility.” Last Thursday night, more than 80 people came to meet Spanberger at a winery in Spotsylvania County. Several of them said that they were heartened to finally see a credible Democratic candidate, and that they were finally becoming comfortable letting their Democratic identity be known to their neighbors.

“It’s fun to find my peeps,” said Tracy Jacobson, who moved to Virginia recently from Illinois. “It feels a little lonely being here.”

Erin Sherwood, who said she was weary of the divisive words coming from Trump and Brat, summed up the feelings of many of the women in the district.

“We feel the change coming,” she said.

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