RICHMOND — Dave Brat swashbuckled onto the national stage four years ago as a giant slayer. He exits a mouse.
As a little-known economics professor in 2014, Brat took on and toppled then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, pulling off a stunning GOP primary upset that presaged the rise of populism and Donald Trump.
But this year, up against the suburban rage unleashed by Trump’s presidency, the congressman seemed skittish.
After Democratic protesters shouted him down at two town hall meetings last year, Brat stuck to tightly scripted public appearances. Campaign events were mostly closed to the media and publicized only after the fact; he last advertised one on Facebook in July. Brat led a business roundtable in Richmond with Vice President Pence in late October, with the press and the public barred. He backed out of a second debate with political newcomer Abigail Spanberger, his Democratic challenger.
Brat, who lost Virginia’s 7th Congressional District to Spanberger on Tuesday by a margin of 50 percent to 48 percent, did not even appear at his own election night party.
With returns looking bleak but voting glitches in Chesterfield County offering a sliver of uncertainty, it fell to a Brat aide to thank volunteers gathered at a Hilton ballroom and tell them they’d have to wait until Wednesday for the outcome.
“He seemed to be almost frightened of part of the electorate,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Virginia political observer. “Donald Trump doesn’t mind protesters, or Barack Obama or any of these folks. That’s part of democracy, and you can use that to your advantage.”
Brat’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
His reticence on the campaign trail seemed out of character for someone remembered by former Randolph-Macon College colleagues for aggressively mixing it up on the basketball court and in faculty meetings.
“He likes intellectual confrontation — and I mean that in a good way,” said Charles Gowan, a Randolph-Macon biology professor and a friend.
Brat’s approach was doubly puzzling because he had proved himself capable of handling hostile crowds at times. Through 90 minutes of heckling, shouts and derisive laughter at a town hall meeting in May 2017, Brat remained calm and amiable. He made a playful reference to “Brat Bingo,” a game cooked up by critics that incorporated some of his buzzwords (“ka-boom”) and well-worn talking points (such as the fact that he is an economist).
“All right,” he told the crowd, “I’m going to give you Bingo: Being an economist — I do like the fun. I wish this could just be fun.”
He never won over that crowd, but he never stopped trying. And he turned the episode into what was perhaps his best TV commercial of the campaign. It showed him trying to engage the audience — including Spanberger, visible in the front row — with a series of questions.
“How many people want to see tax increases to fund more programs?”
Spanberger nods her head yes. Corporate tax-rate reductions? She’s a no. More federal government regulation? She’s a yes.
It was a potentially powerful pitch to suburban swing voters stirred more by pocketbook issues than heated political rhetoric.
But that message was drowned out by more memorable — and less credible — lines of attack from his campaign and independent groups.
Brat closed out the race falsely claiming that Spanberger supported the sweeping Medicare-for-all plan proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). And a political action committee aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) ran TV ads suggesting that Spanberger — a former CIA operative — had assisted terrorists.
The PAC’s ads were based on a substitute-teaching job Spanberger held in 2003 at a Saudi-funded school in Northern Virginia. A few years later, the school drew controversy and the nickname “Terror High” because some students joined al-Qaeda after graduating.
The notion that Spanberger was somehow promoting terrorism while teaching “Hamlet” and “Jane Eyre” seemed a stretch given that the CIA — fully informed about the teaching gig — hired her, granted her top-secret security clearance and sent her overseas as a covert agent fighting terrorism.
“The 7th District is not unlike these other suburban districts that are professional in nature and have a lot of upwardly mobile, dual-income families looking for a better future,” Cantor said in a brief interview Thursday. “The issues confronting them in their daily lives are the issues they didn’t necessarily hear our party talking about.”
While Trump soured some suburbanites on Republicans, Brat had fans who liked that he bucked his own party’s leadership at times as a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
Mark Ludovico, a retired Navy commander from Henrico County, knocked on an estimated 800 doors this year with his 16-year-old son, Daniel. “We think he’s an honest man,” said Ludovico, sounding wistful at Brat’s election night party as Spanberger started pulling ahead. “He connected with us. However this goes, he’s done our country good.”
As this year’s campaign got underway, some grass-roots activists painted little rocks with pro-Brat slogans, such as, “You are Congressman Brat’s only special interest.” They left the rocks in parks and along hiking trails around the district, hoping voters who came across them would enjoy the playful appeal.
Hard-nosed Republican strategists saw the gesture as a colossal waste of time.
“The point that the campaign professionals have made is, ‘Wow, you guys have volunteers that are painting rocks? That’s dumb as hell,’ ” said one strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of offending Brat supporters.
But the activists — dismissive of the professional class who had laughed off Brat’s bid against Cantor — kept painting, producing rocks by the bucketful.
Brat had other help that may have missed the mark, or even backfired on him.
The “Terror High” ad looked fishy to some because Ryan’s PAC found out about Spanberger’s substitute-teaching job from her highly confidential security clearance application. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, for whom she’d also worked in a law enforcement capacity, said it released the document mistakenly.
Less than a week before the election, Spanberger’s campaign discovered that Project Veritas, a conservative group that makes “sting videos,” had infiltrated her campaign with someone posing as a volunteer. The group failed to capture any “gotcha” moments, releasing two videos that “revealed” information that was publicly available.
Brat’s campaign said it had no knowledge of the scheme. But for more than a week before the mole’s ouster, a state Republican Party official had tweeted repeatedly that Project Veritas had planted a spy in Spanberger’s team. The official said he just made a lucky guess that the group, which had been targeting Democrats in midterms around the country, would get around to Spanberger.
Brat got one final “assist” on the Saturday before the election from Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, who was forced out last year after encouraging and amplifying the president’s divisive remarks about a deadly white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville.
Bannon made an appearance in Culpeper with hopes of getting Trump supporters “jacked up” for Brat. The visit was not coordinated with the campaign, and Bannon’s appearance was widely viewed as a negative for Brat in a highly polarized suburban-rural district.
Brat did not attend.