Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) may be leaving the political stage in a snit, but he did leave a couple of interesting bits of political trivia behind him: 1) his 2014 primary victory over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and 2) losing a district that had been in Republican hands for 38 years.
The trivia aside, there were important lessons from the 7th District, which Democrat Abigail Spanberger won Tuesday night.
Cantor offered a few of those lessons to Fox Business host Neil Cavuto. Cantor called the 7th District results “remarkable” and noted that the warning signs for 2018 were clear.
“If you look at what happened in my state of Virginia last year in the gubernatorial election,” Cantor said, “we, as Republicans, got blown out there.”
“The most important issue on the minds of Virginia voters a year ago was health care,” Cantor said. “It was a pattern that replicated itself across the country [Tuesday] night.”
Cantor suggested Republicans talk more about health care, education, the economy and immigration (without the “vile” rhetoric). All of which differs little from the successful campaigns Republicans used to run in Virginia.
But for more specific lessons, I contacted one of Brat’s former Randolph-Macon College colleagues, Lauren Bell. I first spoke with Bell in August. What are her takeaways from the 7th District results?
Bell said Brat’s campaign “felt generic” and had “no specific appeal” to voters, in part because “he never took the time to get to know his new district after the 2016 redistricting.”
Bell said Brat’s attacks on Spanberger’s background, amplified by the Congressional Leadership Fund’s “terror high” ads “were easy to dismiss.”
“No one believed that Spanberger, an ex-CIA agent, really supported terrorism,” Bell said.
But lame attacks were only the beginning of Brat’s problems. “It’s pretty clear that Brat and his team learned the wrong lessons” from his 2014 victory over Cantor, Bell said.
Brat didn’t engage 7th District voters as much or as often as they expect from their congressional representative. Bell said this failing was “odd, given that that was the crux of Brat’s initial argument to voters in 2014.”
“As my colleagues and I noted in Slingshot,” Bell said, “when Eric Cantor began to lose vote share in elections, he should have redoubled his efforts to connect with his constituents and grow his base of support for reelection. He didn’t and paid the price. “
Bell said Brat should have intensified his outreach efforts after court-ordered redistricting in 2016 changed the 7th’s boundaries.
Because he didn’t, Bell said Brat’s “share of the vote declined in every single county in the district this year.” Bell looked at data from the Virginia Board of Elections and found that Brat’s share of the vote in the suburban counties of Henrico and Chesterfield fell by 10 percent.
It wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. “Brat tallied 7 percent fewer votes in Culpeper from 2016 to 2018,” Bell said. “[He] was down the same amount in Goochland, down 6 percent in Louisa, down 5.8 percent in Nottoway, etc.”
Brat’s loss was as much because of Spanberger’s suburban strength as his failure to “maintain or grow support even in the places that had formed the core of his support in the past.”
For the GOP, Bell said the biggest lesson is “nationalizing congressional campaigns doesn’t always work.”
“Compare Brat’s campaign, which made [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi the bogeyman,” Bell said, “with Rob Wittman’s campaign that literally touted how he eats breakfast in the district every day. Wittman won — easily.”
A Republican might be able to win the 7th in 2020, Bell said, but “I don’t know who that would be.”
As for the lessons Spanberger should take from Tuesday’s results, Bell said the biggest is “[finding] ways to stay just as engaged as she was during the campaign even as she turns to the demands of governing. “
“If I were advising her,” Bell said, “I’d tell her to allocate significant staff resources to the district and to focus on constituency service for her first term so she can build a wellspring of trust and support that will give her more flexibility later.”
The 7th is still designed to elect a Republican. But as Brat and Cantor discovered, partisan inertia isn’t enough.
If Spanberger wants to avoid adding her name to the 7th’s list of political trivia, she will study her GOP predecessors’ failings carefully.