BLACKSTONE, Va. — There was a time when Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) was heralded for his ability to harness grass-roots support to defeat the ultimate establishment figure: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
But three years after winning Cantor’s seat, Brat found himself face to face with angry constituents who said they were frustrated by his inaccessibility and wanted to hold him to account for his support of the Trump administration.
At a town hall Tuesday night, Brat absorbed a near-constant onslaught of heckling, interruptions and nasty comments aimed at him by about 200 residents who descended on a tiny Southside Virginia town. Hundreds more were shut out, and they spent the event on the sidewalk, listening to an outdoor loudspeaker.
Brat later said that he anticipated the jeering and promised to hold more town halls, as he did through his first term, although none have been scheduled yet.
“I thought it was going to be worse,” he said.
The drama unfounded in Nottoway County, a rural community carried by Trump in November, and was just one of several town halls held by GOP lawmakers across the country who are grappling with how to respond to newly animated Democrats.
Thomas M. Davis III, a former Republican congressman from Virginia, called the flood of phone calls, social media comments and protests a “rude awakening” for members of Congress from seemingly safe districts.
“I think here are some members who are from single-party districts who have never had to talk to the other side because they have not been relevant to their reelection,” Davis said. “They’re finding out that they’ve got constituents who are being aroused with concern.”
Brat handily won reelection last year in a district drawn to favor a Republican, beating Trump’s margin by nearly 10 points, but Democrats are making their presence known.
“These folks may not be able to beat David Brat, but they can make noise,” Davis said.
Many seized on a chance to let loose on Brat after his recent complaint that women were “in my grill” with demands that he hold a town hall.
When he scheduled the public event in Blackstone, an hour south of where most people in Brat’s district live, they were ready for him.
“It was kind of rowdy, but at the same time he kind of created that situation because of his elusiveness. Just imagine had he agreed to meet with his constituents in the [Richmond] area, and had a town hall,” said Karen E. Peters, a Chesterfield resident who voted for Brat in 2014 but against him in 2016 and began calling for a town hall after the November election.
Some of the loudest jeers came over Republicans’ promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act as people held up red cards signaling their discontent.
“The problem is Obamacare has just collapsed,” said Brat, who stood at a lectern in the event space at the Blackstone Herb Cottage restaurant. The crowd shouted in response, “No, it has not!”
Although Brat opponents dominated the town hall, his supporters — some of them with him since his unlikely 2014 primary win — sat quietly in the audience.
“I think he handled himself well,” said Mark Hile, a Brat supporter who is active with the Henrico County Tea Party. “He’s not going to please everybody. There were people in that room whose set goal and objective was to have a total disruption. I don’t think they really wanted him to say anything if they had it their way.”
His wife, Anita Hile, made signs that said “I’m part of the Brat Pack” and “Grill girls for Brat.”
Ben Slone, the chairman of the GOP committee in Brat’s district, said Brat did well, considering the circumstances.
“Standing up in front of a crowd like that and having distractions come at you and being able to a keep semi-coherent thought in your head,” Slone said. “I didn’t like the non-civil methods, but I understand it because of the anger.”
Brat, who declined to be interviewed Wednesday, has said he considers himself accessible and noted that he delivered on his early promise to visit every county in his district every month. His office has declined to release a list of the events confirming his claim.
While fielding dozens of questions, Brat attempted to delve into policy but was derailed again and again. He briefly won applause when he said he favored an independent investigation into claims of Russian interference in the election.
“Yes, a legal authority should investigate and follow the rule of law wherever it leads,” he said.
But later, when asked if there should be an investigation into Trump’s relationship with Russian operatives, Brat said: “There’s no evidence. Y’all don’t just get to throw spaghetti on the wall.”
On four separate occasions, he awkwardly plugged his book “American Underdog,” which details his election to Congress and his fiscal and conservative principles, saying it’s an effective sleep aid. The joke fell flat each time.
Asked how as a fiscal conservative Brat could justify the cost of the wall along the southern U.S. border promised by Trump — estimated to cost between $15 billion and $25 billion — Brat said, “The answer is ‘easily.’ ”
“Then you pay for it!” a woman in the audience shot back.
Participants began to line up along Main Street hours before the doors opened. Many held signs referring to Brat’s recent gaffe, including one that read “VA 7th district, it’s grilling time!”
Another sign said, “This grandmother drove 165 miles to be in your grill, Mr. Brat and no one paid me to be here!” — a nod to a comment Brat made to a Richmond paper in which he dismissed protesters as “paid activists.”
Several people sported stickers on their clothes bearing their Zip codes to demonstrate that they live in Brat’s congressional district.
Nicole Subryan, 44, a registered nurse from Petersburg, which is not in Brat’s district, kept up a loud running commentary through the town hall and held up a sheet of paper with the word “LIE.”
She and others seemed unimpressed with his recitation of his grass-roots credentials, which helped him topple Cantor, who was criticized for being out of touch with his constituents.
And that, said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist and pollster at Christopher Newport University, could come back to haunt Brat.
“He has to realize how precarious your hold on a super-safe district can be, because he’s the one who demonstrated how precarious a super-safe district can be,” Kidd said.