Public polling data has been scarce in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District race, which is odd, considering the Cook Political Report has rated it a toss-up.
But the New York Times is polling the 7th, giving readers a view not just of the race itself but also how polls are created.
Leaving those nuts and bolts aside, the numbers as of Wednesday showed incumbent Rep. Dave Brat leading Democratic nominee Abigail Spanberger 48-44 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
In short, this imperfect and unfinished snapshot shows that this is a close race.
Or, as former Republican Party of Virginia executive director Shaun Kenney described the data, we could think of the results so far as a football game, and Brat is the Cleveland Browns.
“Brat has home-field advantage,” Kenney said, “but Spanberger is eating into that advantage in a serious way.”
Brat’s advantages are real. The district is drawn to favor a Republican. President Trump won the 7th in 2016. Brat out-polled Trump by almost 20,000 votes on his way to victory.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie won the 7th District in 2017, beating Democrat Ralph Northam by almost 4 percentage points.
In the New York Times poll, Brat leads among older, whiter voters. Spanberger leads among the most educated voters and among women.
Little of that is surprising. More interesting and central to the race’s outcome is how the candidates are faring across 7th District’s suburban/rural divide.
Conventional wisdom says Brat will have a rough go in suburban Henrico and Chesterfield counties, while his strength is in the district’s more rural counties.
The poll shows some of that: Brat trails Spanberger by 10 percentage points in the increasingly blue Henrico. But in Chesterfield, Brat has a lead over Spanberger of 48-44 percent, with 8 percent undecided.
To have a legitimate shot, Spanberger has to win Chesterfield and do so somewhat convincingly. The reason? Brat’s rural redoubt appears to be holding firm.
The Times’s poll shows Brat leading everywhere else in the 7th District 52-38 percent. While the Times may not name storied counties such as Culpeper, Orange or Goochland, these less-populated areas are where Brat will — or should — roll-up electoral margins of 2- or 3-to-1.
As Kenney reads the data, “Spanberger’s strength is in the Richmond media market.” He sees her opportunities are strongest among independents, a group the Times’s data shows her leading Brat 45-44 percent, with a whopping 11 percent undecided.
Brat could win them over, too. His most potent tool: an economic boom that is sending middle-class incomes to new highs and poverty rates to new lows.
“Spanberger is weak on many issues where Brat is conditionally strong,” Kenney said. “Yet someone in the brain trust decided to make this election a referendum on Spanberger’s public service as an intelligence officer.”
Using information it obtained from a bungled FOIA request, the Congressional Leadership Fund’s “Terror High” ad, attempts to paint Spanberger as a fellow traveler of al-Qaeda — based on her brief stint as a teacher at the Saudi Islamic Academy. The ad is intended to raise doubts about Spanberger’s background and her integrity.
What it did was allow her to swing back hard with an ad featuring retired CIA officer John Sipher touting Spanberger’s own CIA counterterrorism work — and calling criticism of her service “dangerous and unpatriotic.”
“Color me skeptical,” Kenney said, “but defining Spanberger as the female version of Jack Ryan isn’t a smart play.”
Even with an own-goal like this, Kenney believes the general election is “still Brat’s race to lose.”
And by every historical measure, that is true. Brat should win — maybe narrowly and maybe quite ugly.
“But,” Kenney added, “if it were a football game, it’d be Brat as the Cleveland Browns at home against Spanberger as the New England Patriots.”