RICHMOND — Republican Party officials are using Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and gays to criticize Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer challenging Rep. Dave Brat (R), because she worked as a substitute teacher for one school year at a Saudi-funded Islamic school in Northern Virginia.
“Is she comfortable with the policies Saudi Arabia has on the books related to women’s rights and LGBTQ rights?” the state GOP asked in a news release issued Tuesday. “Did she ever report any female students for violating the full body covering dress code at the Academy?”
Spanberger dismissed the attack without directly responding to the party's questions.
“These attempts to question my strong national security and law enforcement background, including my time spent in the CIA thwarting the terrorist threat, are simply desperate and weak coming from political operatives,” she said in an email via her campaign.
The party’s attack drew immediate blowback from one Republican, former state delegate David I. Ramadan, who was born in Lebanon to a Muslim family.
“Acting on behalf of @DaveBratVA7th, there is no limit to @Va_GOP stupidity and anti-Muslim sentiments,” Ramadan wrote on Twitter.
Brat’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The GOP attack builds on one that started last week, with revelations that Spanberger taught English for part of one school year at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria. The party’s initial focus was on the school’s links to terrorism. Critics have dubbed it “Terror High” because some students later joined al-Qaeda.
Spanberger received two federal security clearances after disclosing her teaching work to the Postal Service and CIA, for whom she worked overseas as a covert agent fighting terrorism.
The “Terror High” allegations were largely overlooked amid controversy over how Republicans had obtained the information on the teaching job: It was listed on a confidential questionnaire, known as a SF86, that Spanberger had submitted years earlier as she was seeking security clearance to work as Postal Inspector, a job she had prior to the CIA.
The form contained sensitive personal information, including Spanberger’s Social Security number and medical history. The government is prohibited from releasing that information under the Privacy Act of 1974.
The Postal Service acknowledged last week that it should not have released the questionnaire to America Rising, a GOP opposition research firm, which then shared it with the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.)
The Postal Service blamed the release on “human error,” saying an employee in a new position mistakenly handled the personnel records request as if Spanberger were asking for her own records, instead of as a Freedom of Information request from a third party.
Two members of Congress have asked for an investigation and 200 national security professionals signed a letter suggesting that the release may have been politically motivated.
The school drew controversy after Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, its 1999 valedictorian, was convicted in 2005 on charges of providing material support to the al Qaeda and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Spanberger filled in for a teacher there who was on maternity leave during the 2002-2003 school year, a job she took after she’d gotten a conditional job offer from the CIA and was waiting out the long security-clearance process.
She updated her SF-86 to note that she had taken the teaching job, identifying the school by name. She later got a job as a postal inspector and finally started with the CIA in 2006.
The state GOP tweeted a link to the school’s manual last week to take issue with its dress code.
“.@SpanbergerVA07 the manual for the Islamic school you taught at requires that all female students wear hijabs and never wear shorts even when exercising,” the Virginia GOP tweeted. “Were similar politics in place when you taught at the Islamic Saudi Academy?”
Ramadan responded with: “Morons at Republican Party of Virginia / Virginia #GOP (@VA_GOP) attacking 1st Amendment to score political points against a Dem candidate.”
The party doubled down on that line of attack with a lengthy news release, which noted that “under Saudi law, all adult females are required to fully cover their bodies in public, women cannot travel without the permission of a male spouse or relative, and, until two months ago, women were not permitted to drive cars. The Saudi government also allows for the death penalty for homosexual relations in their country, criminalizes the practice of other religions, and uses beheading and stoning as forms of capital punishment.”
John Findlay, executive director of the party, said in the release that Spanberger was either complicit with or blind to terrorism, misogyny and anti-gay policies at the school.
Spanberger and Brat are running in Virginia’s 7th District, a longtime GOP stronghold in suburban Richmond where President Trump is unpopular. Cook Political Report classifies the race as “toss-up.”
Brat won the seat four years ago after beating then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary, a stunning upset fueled by an ascendant tea party. But this year, Brat must contend with a strong challenge from Spanberger, anti-Trump sentiment and lingering resentment from Cantor supporters.