RICHMOND — Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), locked in a tight race for reelection, held his first town hall meeting in more than a year Friday, a gathering focused on veterans’ health that drew none of the boisterous protesters who disrupted similar events twice last year.
Brat has shied away from freewheeling forums since 2017, when he was shouted down at a pair of town hall meetings by protesters enraged by the election of President Trump and Republican attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
The focus on veterans’ health care — an issue popular on both sides of the aisle — and the fact that the event was held in the middle of a weekday may have deterred Brat critics from showing up.
“It’s all veterans,” Brat said when asked what accounted for the well-mannered crowd. “I don’t think anyone’s going to mess with the veterans. And so, thank God for veterans.”
Brat is facing a serious challenge from Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer and political newcomer. A Monmouth University poll released Tuesday said Spanberger leads Brat 47 percent to 42 percent among all potential voters, while 2 percent favor Libertarian Joe Walton and 9 percent are undecided.
Friday afternoon’s event, which was open to anyone, drew about 70 people to a board room in the Henrico County government complex.
Brat called the meeting to tout work he has done for veterans, including his support for the VA Mission Act. He appeared with Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and author of that legislation, which is intended to protect whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Brat also has supported legislation to remove time restrictions on GI benefits and to modernize the appeals process for disability claims.
In opening remarks that lasted just over two minutes, Brat said the district has about 55,000 veterans.
“That’s a huge number, and we want to do our best,” he said, adding that his office has worked with about 350 veterans this year, trying to help them access benefits.
Brat then turned the microphone over to Roe, who praised Brat as “a very thoughtful, bright man [who] brings a lot to the U.S. Congress.”
“He’s been incredibly supportive of veterans,” Roe said.
Roe gave the crowd an overview of recent legislation intended to help veterans, including the Mission Act, then took questions from the audience. Some were harshly critical of VA.
“I was literally targeted by the VA,” said John Gregory Richardson, 59, who lives in Henrico County. “I’m on a hit list. . . . If you cause a problem, you’re flagged.”
But the anger was not directed at Brat. Richardson noted that Brat and his office had been helping him work through problems getting benefits.
That was a sharp contrast from the two town hall meetings the congressman held last year, early in Trump’s tenure. The first was in February 2017, amid pressure from women he described as being “in my grill” over his lack of town hall meetings. That crowd shouted him down. He tried again in May 2017 with a gathering that drew about 700 people at a suburban Richmond church. Critics booed and heckled him even before he was introduced.
Brat spokesman Mitchell Hailstone said the congressman has never stopped meeting with constituents, noting that he participated in a forum on human trafficking two weeks ago. But Brat has favored smaller gatherings such as the “mobile office hours” he held around the district in August.
Hailstone said Brat met with every constituent who signed up for the office hours, which were held in all 10 counties in his central Virginia district, stretching from Culpeper to Nottoway County. Hailstone said Democrats and Republicans alike took advantage of those meetings. The sessions were small and not open to the media, which may have cut down on theatrics.
But the lack of larger meetings had left Brat vulnerable to criticism that he had grown as distant as the man he toppled in a GOP primary four years earlier, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. John Fredericks, a conservative radio host, had recently urged Brat on the air to hold a town hall meeting to put that issue to bed.
“Let’s take not having a town hall meeting off the table,” Fredericks said, recalling his on-air advice in an interview with The Washington Post on Friday. “Get hollered at for two hours. You are not going to die. You will live through it. . . . Then let’s talk about the issues.”
Brat was a little-known Randolph-Macon College economics professor when he beat Cantor in the GOP primary, a stunning upset fueled by an ascendant tea party movement. He won reelection two years ago by 16 percentage points.
This year, Brat is contending with a strong challenge from Spanberger, who could benefit from antipathy toward Trump in the district’s suburban areas. The Cook Political Report classifies the race as a “toss-up.”