Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) shakes hands with Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger after a debate at Germanna Community College in Culpeper, Va., on Monday. (Steve Helber/AP)

Rep. Dave Brat (R) and Democrat Abigail Spanberger clashed over health care, immigration and taxes in their first and probably only debate in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, a longtime GOP stronghold that appears to be up for grabs in the era of President Trump.

While Trump looms large over the race, the president was mentioned just once during the 90-minute forum. The name on Brat’s lips was that of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He invoked Pelosi repeatedly as he tried to paint Spanberger as a liberal who supports “sanctuary cities” and “a total government takeover of health care.”

Brat referred so often to “the Nancy Pelosi liberal agenda” that the phrase started drawing laughs. At one point he acknowledged that he’d said it “a million times.” (More conservative estimates put the mentions at around 25.)

Spanberger, a former federal law enforcement agent and CIA operative who has positioned herself as a moderate, said flatly and repeatedly that Brat was misrepresenting her views: She would not support Pelosi for House speaker if Democrats won control of the chamber, she does not support the “Medicare for All” plan he referenced, and she opposes sanctuary cities, which have policies protecting undocumented immigrants.

“I used to work every single day to keep the community I lived in safe,” she said. “For you to allege anything else is frankly comical.”

Brat, a former Randolph-Macon College economics professor, won the seat four years ago after pulling off a shocking primary upset over Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader. He cruised to a 15-point reelection win two years after that.


The race between Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and Democrat Abigail Spanberger is rated as a toss-up. (LEFT: Timothy C. Wright for The Washington Post; RIGHT: Ryan M. Kelly for The Washington Post)

This year, Brat faces a strong challenger in Spanberger, whose national security résumé may appeal to swing voters and moderate Republicans.

Brat also faces head winds from Washington in a polarized district, a mix of Richmond suburbs and rural areas stretching from Culpeper to Nottoway County. Trump is popular in the 7th’s rural areas, but he has greatly energized Democrats in the suburbs, where Democrats flipped several GOP House of Delegates seats in elections last year. Independent political analysts rate the race a toss-up.

Brat has found himself in difficulty with some female voters, after he complained last year that “the women are in my grill” over his reluctance to hold town hall meetings to discuss the Trump administration.

At one point in Monday’s debate, Spanberger sharply rebutted Brat after he spent several minutes talking about federal law enforcement.

“I want to thank you for explaining the role of federal law enforcement to me because I used to be a federal law enforcement officer,” she said.

Spanberger, who does not accept corporate PAC donations, is ahead in fundraising. She announced Sunday, ahead of a Monday night reporting deadline, that she had raised nearly $3.6 million over the past three months — a record quarter in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District and more than the $2.8 million Brat raised for his last two campaigns combined.

It appears she took in more than three times as much as Brat did; his spokeswoman said he had raised more than $1 million in the third quarter. Outside money also has poured into the race. Since Oct. 1, committees independent of the candidates have spent $2.2 million on TV and social media ads.

The debate, sponsored by the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce, took place before a crowd of more than 400 at Germanna Community College’s Culpeper campus. It was broadcast on Richmond’s CBS affiliate, WTVR, and moderated by Jonathan Krawchuk, station manager for Culpeper’s government access channel. Brat recently backed out of plans for a second debate, saying his campaign might reconsider after the Culpeper forum.

On Monday, Brat and Spanberger repeatedly disagreed on the subject of health care. Brat said Spanberger would raise health-care spending by $32 trillion. He was alluding to the “Medicare for All” plan advanced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), which is often referred to as “single payer” and would make Medicare the basis for all health insurance.

“The way to lower prices is to get rid of Obamacare,” he said. “You don’t do competition by doubling down and doing a full government takeover of health care.”

Spanberger said she does not support the Sanders plan. Instead, she said she wants “Medicare-X,” a plan proposed by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) that would offer Medicare as an option on the health-insurance exchanges for non-elderly Americans. People could buy into a publicly provided insurance plan using the network of Medicare providers, at similar rates.

Spanberger noted that Brat voted against protections for people with preexisting medical conditions. Brat insisted that he voted to maintain protections for preexisting conditions when he supported the GOP’s failed plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. The dispute lies in what each candidate means by “protections” — whether making sure that insurers offer polices to those patients or ensuring that they offer affordable policies.

The bill Brat supported would have prevented insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions, but it would have allowed insurers to charge much higher premiums, independent fact-checkers found at the time.

While trying to defend himself on preexisting conditions, Brat misrepresented the findings of The Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, by suggesting falsely that Kessler had given four Pinocchios to one of Spanberger’s TV ads.

Spanberger and Brat, both parents of Henrico County public school students, had different approaches to guns and school safety. Spanberger said she grew up with guns and understands gun culture, but wants universal background checks for all gun purchases. Brat said that Spanberger “wants to take away your guns” and that school shootings are best prevented by placing armed school resource officers on campuses and improving access to mental health care.

In his opening statement, Brat recalled his beginnings in politics as an outsider who bucked his party’s leadership, calling it out for what he saw as cronyism and its failure to control immigration and spending. He said he has delivered results from the moment he knocked off Cantor.

“I ran as an outsider, as a long-shot candidate,” he said. “The day after my victory, a huge liberal amnesty bill came crashing to an end.”

Spanberger suggested that the man who had run as a fiscal hawk had lost his way by supporting Trump’s tax cuts, which she noted will add $1.9 trillion to the federal deficit. She also said the tax breaks went largely to big business, including $42 billion to pharmaceutical giants.

On the subject of trade and tariffs, Brat said Americans are benefitting from the renegotiation of trade deals with Mexico and Canada. He said Trump’s trade war with China might cause short-term pain but suggested the president had a strategy that would eventually lead to “zero tariffs.”

Spanberger said that recent trade negotiations have benefitted dairy farmers in the district but that soybean farmers have been hurt. She questioned Trump’s strategy.

“The notion that we would move toward zero tariffs by starting a trade war is not something I understand,” she said. “It is reckless foreign policy.”