I turned to Randolph-Macon political science professor Lauren Bell for a reality check.
Bell is a co-author of “Slingshot: The Defeat of Eric Cantor.” Bell and her colleagues David Meyer and Keith Gaddie wrote that we pundits missed a lot about Brat’s 2014 triumph over Cantor, then the House majority leader, allowing ourselves to be “mesmerized” by the data that showed there was no way — on paper — an unknown like Brat could overcome Cantor’s money and power.
I asked Bell what I might be missing about the 2018 race between Brat and the Democratic nominee, Abigail Spanberger.
Bell said 7th District voters “made it clear in 2014 that they want a member of Congress who is attentive to their interests,” and to get it, they were willing to “sacrifice ‘status’ (that is, Cantor was almost certain to be the next speaker of the House) for real representation.”
Would the GOP-leaning 7th District be willing to send Brat packing if it meant handing the House to the Democrats?
“It doesn’t seem that great a leap to me that some Republican voters in the 7th may even be willing to sacrifice party control of the House if it means they might have a chance at actually being able to see and talk with their representative every now and then,” Bell said.
Bell has heard the same anecdotes I have about the race, where “Republicans who voted for Brat but now plan to vote for Spanberger — or not at all — because they’ve found Brat less responsive than they thought he’d be.”
Brat has pulled back from his constituents. The Post’s Paul Schwartzman wrote Brat hasn’t held any town hall style meetings since 2017, preferring instead to hold “mobile office hours” where he meets with constituents “who requested it.”
In short, he’ll talk to voters — on his terms.
This raises the question: Has Brat avoided the traps that eventually ensnared Cantor? Bell says “no.”
“The 7th doesn’t have any single industry or interest that a member can zero in on,” Bell said, “and its proximity to D.C. means that constituents expect their representative to be present regardless of what might be happening in Washington.”
Bell said like Cantor, Brat has not been “sufficiently attentive to the district.”
He had his first indication of trouble in 2016. As Bell notes, Brat won 61 percent of the vote in 2014, but, “after the 2016 redistricting, he won in that year with 58 percent of the vote.”
“When a member’s vote share declines, he or she should be aggressive in reestablishing a bond with his or her constituents.”
“Instead,” Bell said, “Brat has engaged less — and worse, he’s managed to alienate key demographic groups within his constituency by not being careful about what he says (e.g., ‘the women are in my grill’).”
“If Brat loses in November, it will be because he wasn’t sufficiently in tune with his constituents.”
All of which brings us to the only question that matters: Is Brat really in trouble?
Bell said redistricting in 2016 made the 7th somewhat less Republican than it was in 2014. But it should still elect a Republican.
Even so, Bell said, “Spanberger has a legitimate shot, and it will not surprise me at all if she wins.”
“Brat’s position right now feels to me a lot like Cantor’s in April 2014,” Bell said.
“Frankly,” Bell said, “Spanberger is a stronger candidate than Brat was” in 2014.
“She has far more money and more of the kinds of prior experience in public service that successful candidates typically have. She also has her national party backing her, something Brat did not have in 2014.“
Brat also has the increasingly heavy baggage of Republican Senate nominee Corey A. Stewart, a narrative driven by the president’s Twitter feed and a Virginia political landscape that — for now — favors Democrats.
Cantor has to be smiling.