RICHMOND — A conservative group that creates undercover “sting” videos infiltrated the campaign of Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat in a tight race with Rep. Dave Brat in Virginia’s 7th District.
The campaign said a young woman working for Project Veritas posed as a Democratic volunteer and spent every day over the past several weeks in Spanberger’s suburban Richmond campaign office, performing basic office tasks — and peppering her office mates with questions that eventually raised red flags.
Campaign staffers on Wednesday confronted her and asked her to leave, a video released by the campaign shows.
“Dirty tricks like these are the worst part of politics, and this is exactly what Abigail is running to change,” Spanberger’s campaign manager, Dana Bye, said in an email. “We are proud of the campaign we have run, and wonder if Congressman Brat and his allies can say the same. While others may scrape the bottom of the barrel out of desperation, Abigail and our campaign will remain focused on talking to our neighbors on their doorsteps about the issues that matter to our community — that’s the campaign voters deserve and it’s the campaign that we believe will carry us to victory.”
Brat spokeswoman Katey Price said the Republican congressman’s campaign had no involvement.
James O’Keefe, founder of New York-based Project Veritas, suggested that the undercover work had borne fruit but also lamented that it was cut short by the ouster of the mole, whom the Spanberger campaign identified as Marisa Jorge.
“As you know our reporters have been releasing videos in Arizona, Tennessee, Missouri, North Dakota and these videos have had extraordinary reactions from many of the candidates themselves,” he said in an email.
O’Keefe released two videos, both capturing conversations between Jorge and Spanberger staffer Michael Phelan. In one, Phelan says Spanberger thinks President Trump’s proposed border wall is “stupid” and a waste of money. Spanberger has publicly opposed the wall, saying there are better ways to enhance border security.
In the other video, Jorge marvels at the “diversity” of Spanberger donors, noting that they include former FBI director James B. Comey and Jonathan Soros, the son of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who has become a frequent target to the right.
“I feel like those [donors] would be cool selling points if you were doing phone banking,” Jorge says. “But then you wouldn’t want to, like, tell people.”
Phelan replies, “No, definitely not.” But he soon adds: “They can look it up in public record. It’s not a secret.”
O’Keefe, in an interview, said the exchange shows the campaign is sheepish about the Comey and Jonathan Soros donations. “They’re talking about how this is not something they really want people to know, which is interesting to us,” he said.
Spanberger’s campaign said Jorge showed up a few weeks ago and said her name was Monica Nelson. She said she was five months pregnant and looking for something to do after overcoming an illness early in her pregnancy.
In an email sent to the campaign’s deputy director Sunday, she pressed for a one-on-one meeting with Spanberger so she could pitch her idea for a website “to encourage moms to follow their political passions.”
The campaign grew suspicious and found her image on a website that identified her as Marisa Jorge, a veteran of several previous Project Veritas stings.
In a video provided by Spanberger’s campaign, Bye confronted Jorge on Wednesday.
“We understand that you are here under false pretenses, and that we need to ask you to leave, and that your name is Marisa Jorge, and that you’re with Project Veritas,” Bye says.
Jorge calmly says, “Okay, thank you,” and leaves immediately.
Jorge did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups, uses false cover stories and highly edited covert video recordings meant to be used in exposés.
Last year, a woman who worked for Project Veritas falsely claimed to The Washington Post that Roy Moore, then the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama, impregnated her as a teenager — an apparent effort to trick The Post into publishing an untrue story.
O’Keefe was convicted of a misdemeanor in 2010 for using a fake identity to enter a federal building during a previous sting.
Spanberger and Brat are locked in a tight race in the district, a onetime GOP stronghold that appears to be up for grabs in the Trump era. The 7th is a mix of Richmond suburbs and rural areas stretching from Culpeper County in the north to Nottoway County in the south. Trump, who has endorsed Brat, is popular in the rural areas but has energized Democratic opposition in the suburbs.
The latest poll shows Brat — a former economics professor who won the seat four years ago after a shocking primary upset over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) — virtually tied with Spanberger, a former CIA agent and federal law enforcement officer.
Brat cruised to a 15-point reelection win two years ago but faces a strong challenger in Spanberger, whose résumé may appeal to swing voters and moderate Republicans turned off by Trump.
Republican strength in the district has been waning, with victory margins shrinking. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the 7th District by 11 percentage points in 2012. Trump won it by six points in 2016. In the 2017 governor’s race, Republican Ed Gillespie beat Democrat Ralph Northam there by less than four points.