RICHMOND — Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), locked in a tough reelection campaign against Democrat Abigail Spanberger, has backed out of what may have been their only widely broadcast TV debate, her campaign said Monday.
The rival campaigns in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District had announced one debate, to take place Oct. 15 at a community college in Culpeper. That debate will be live-streamed and shown on C-SPAN.
The two teams had privately agreed to a second debate, to take place Oct. 25 at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, with the local CBS affiliate planning to air it, Spanberger’s campaign said.
Brat’s campaign pulled back from the Richmond event late last week, saying that it will decide whether to participate in a second debate only after the first one takes place, Spanberger’s campaign said.
“We are disappointed by your campaign’s sudden withdrawal from the metro Richmond debate,” Spanberger campaign manager Dana Bye wrote in a letter Monday to Phil Rapp, a longtime adviser to Brat who recently joined the campaign.
“We believed arrangements were being made in good faith when campaign manager Katey Price confirmed on August 21, 2018, that the Brat campaign would participate in the October 25, 2018 debate,” the letter said. “Subsequently, Ms. Price conducted a walkthrough of the proposed debate venue on September 12 with the host, local TV affiliate WTVR, in attendance. The Brat [campaign] re-confirmed their participation in the debate during the walkthrough.”
Price said the Brat campaign had never fully committed to the debate, whose rules, moderator and other details were yet to be worked out.
“We were still in negotiations,” she said. “We were still in flux. Nothing, from our perspective, was set in stone.”
Stephen Hayes, general manger at WTVR, declined to comment, referring questions to the two campaigns, as did Janine Davila, director of auxiliary operations at St. Christopher’s.
Brat and Spanberger are competing to represent a suburban-rural swath of central Virginia, a longtime GOP stronghold widely seen as within reach of Democrats in the Trump era.
Brat, a former economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, won the seat four years ago after pulling off a shocking primary upset over Rep. Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader. Despite lingering resentment from some Cantor allies, he won reelection two years later by 16 percentage points.
But he faces a strong challenge from Spanberger, a former CIA officer who has used her national security credentials to appeal to moderate Republicans and swing voters. She could benefit from antipathy toward President Trump in the district’s suburban areas.
The Cook Political Report classifies the race as a toss-up.
By limiting debates, Brat risks feeding the Democrats’ narrative that he is avoiding public appearances. Brat has shied from freewheeling town hall meetings since 2017, when protesters angered by Trump’s election and Republican attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act shouted him down at two forums.
Brat held his first town hall meeting in more than a year Friday. The gathering, held in the middle of a workday and focused on veterans’ health care — an issue popular with both sides of the aisle — drew a small, well-behaved crowd.
The Culpeper debate is to take place at Germanna Community College’s Daniel Technology Center. The Culpeper Chamber of Commerce is putting on the event and made 175 free tickets available online at 12:01 a.m. Monday on a first-come, first-served basis.
They were snapped up in about a minute, said Lorraine Carter, the Chamber’s administrative and marketing coordinator. She said C-SPAN was planning to air the debate, but it was unclear whether it would do so live or at another time.
After getting word that the Richmond debate would not go forward, WTVR contacted Culpeper Media Network, the local cable access channel, to inquire about broadcasting the Culpeper debate, Carter said. Carter said the Chamber and the two campaigns would have to agree for that to happen.