Con­gress­man’s cam­paign ap­proach puz­zles ex­perts

7th Dis­trict race loser Brat ret­i­cent on cam­paign trail

Daily Press - - Local News - By Laura Vozzella The Wash­ing­ton Post

RICH­MOND — Dave Brat swash­buck­led onto the na­tional stage four years ago as a gi­ant slayer. He ex­its a mouse.

As a lit­tle-known eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor in 2014, Brat took on and top­pled then-Ma­jor­ity Leader Eric Can­tor, pulling off a stun­ning GOP pri­mary up­set that pre­saged the rise of pop­ulism and Donald Trump.

But this year, up against the sub­ur­ban rage un­leashed by Trump’s pres­i­dency, Rep. Brat seemed skit­tish.

Af­ter Demo­cratic protesters shouted him down at two town hall meet­ings last year, Brat stuck to tightly scripted pub­lic ap­pear­ances. Cam­paign events were mostly closed to the me­dia and pub­li­cized only af­ter the fact; he last ad­ver­tised one on Face­book in July. Brat led a busi­ness round­table in Rich­mond with Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence in late Oc­to­ber, with the press and the pub­lic barred. He backed out of a sec­ond de­bate with po­lit­i­cal new­comer Abi­gail Span­berger, his Demo­cratic chal­lenger.

Brat, who lost Vir­ginia’s 7th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict to Span­berger on Tues­day by a mar­gin of 50 per­cent to 48 per­cent, did not even ap­pear at his own elec­tion night party.

With re­turns look­ing bleak but vot­ing glitches in Ch­ester­field County of­fer­ing a sliver of un­cer­tainty, it fell to a Brat aide to thank vol­un­teers gath­ered at a Hil­ton ball­room and tell them they’d have to wait un­til Wed­nes­day for the out­come.

“He seemed to be al­most fright­ened of part of the elec­torate,” said Bob Holsworth, a vet­eran Vir­ginia po­lit­i­cal ob­server. “Donald Trump doesn’t mind protesters, or Barack Obama or any of these folks. That’s part of democ­racy, and you can use that to your ad­van­tage.”

Brat’s cam­paign did not re­spond to a re­quest for comment.

His ret­i­cence on the cam­paign trail seemed out of char­ac­ter for some­one re­mem­bered by for­mer Ran­dolph-Ma­con Col­lege col­leagues for ag­gres­sively mix­ing it up on the bas­ket­ball court and in fac­ulty meet­ings.

“He likes in­tel­lec­tual con­fronta­tion — and I mean that in a good way,” said Charles Gowan, a Ran­dolph-Ma­con bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor and a friend.

Brat’s ap­proach was dou­bly puz­zling be­cause he had proved him­self ca­pa­ble of han­dling hos­tile crowds at times. Through 90 min­utes of heck­ling, shouts and de­ri­sive laugh­ter at a town hall meet­ing in May 2017, Brat re­mained calm and ami­able. He made a play­ful ref­er­ence to “Brat Bingo,” a game cooked up by crit­ics that in­cor­po­rated some of his buzz­words (“ka-boom”) and well-worn talk­ing points (such as the fact that he is an econ­o­mist).

“All right,” he told the crowd, “I’m go­ing to give you Bingo: Be­ing an econ­o­mist — I do like the fun. I wish this could just be fun.”

He never won over that crowd, but he never stopped try­ing. And he turned the episode into what was per­haps his best TV com­mer­cial of the cam­paign. It showed him try­ing to en­gage the au­di­ence — in­clud­ing Span­berger, vis­i­ble in the front row — with a se­ries of ques­tions.

“How many peo­ple want to see tax in­creases to fund more pro­grams?”

Span­berger nods her head yes. Cor­po­rate tax-rate re­duc­tions? She’s a no. More fed­eral govern­ment reg­u­la­tion? She’s a yes.

It was a po­ten­tially pow­er­ful pitch to sub­ur­ban swing vot­ers stirred more by pock­et­book is­sues than heated po­lit­i­cal rhetoric.

But that mes­sage was drowned out by more memorable — and less cred­i­ble — lines of at­tack from his cam­paign and in­de­pen­dent groups.

Brat closed out the race falsely claim­ing that Span­berger sup­ported the sweep­ing Medi­care­for-all plan pro­posed by Sen. Bernie San­ders. And a po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan ran TV ads sug­gest­ing that Span­berger — a for­mer CIA op­er­a­tive — had as­sisted ter­ror­ists.

The PAC’s ads were based on a sub­sti­tute-teach­ing job Span­berger held in 2003 at a Saud­i­funded school in North­ern Vir­ginia. A few years later, the school drew con­tro­versy and the nick­name “Ter­ror High” be­cause some stu­dents joined al-Qaeda af­ter grad­u­at­ing.

Brat had other help that may have missed the mark, or even back­fired on him.

The “Ter­ror High” ad looked fishy to some be­cause Ryan’s PAC found out about Span­berger’s sub­sti­tute-teach­ing job from her highly con­fi­den­tial se­cu­rity clear­ance ap­pli­ca­tion. The U.S. Postal In­spec­tion Ser­vice, for whom she’d also worked in a law en­force­ment ca­pac­ity, said it re­leased the doc­u­ment mis­tak­enly.

Less than a week be­fore the elec­tion, Span­berger’s cam­paign dis­cov­ered that Project Veritas, a con­ser­va­tive group that makes “sting videos,” had in­fil­trated her cam­paign with some­one pos­ing as a vol­un­teer. The group failed to cap­ture any “gotcha” mo­ments, re­leas­ing two videos that “re­vealed” in­for­ma­tion that was pub­licly avail­able.

Brat’s cam­paign said it had no knowl­edge of the scheme. But for more than a week be­fore the mole’s ouster, a state Re­pub­li­can Party official had tweeted re­peat­edly that Project Veritas had planted a spy in Span­berger’s team. The official said he just made a lucky guess that the group, which had been tar­get­ing Democrats in midterms around the coun­try, would get around to Span­berger.

Brat got one fi­nal “as­sist” on the Satur­day be­fore the elec­tion from Stephen Bannon, the pres­i­dent’s for­mer chief strate­gist, forced out last year af­ter en­cour­ag­ing the pres­i­dent’s di­vi­sive re­marks about a deadly white su­prem­a­cist de­mon­stra­tion in Char­lottesville.

Bannon made an ap­pear­ance in Culpeper with hopes of get­ting Trump sup­port­ers “jacked up” for Brat. The visit was not co­or­di­nated with the cam­paign, and Bannon’s ap­pear­ance was widely viewed as a neg­a­tive for Brat.

Brat did not at­tend.

TI­MOTHY C. WRIGHT/WASH­ING­TON POST FILE

Re­pub­li­can Dave Brat lost Vir­ginia’s 7th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict to Demo­crat Abi­gail Span­berger by a mar­gin of 50 per­cent to 48 per­cent.

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