Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) talks with inmates at the Chesterfield County jail in Chesterfield, Va., on Oct. 17. (Laura Vozzella/The Washington Post)

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) compared the struggles of jailed drug addicts to the heat he’s taking in his tight race with Democrat Abigail Spanberger.

“You think you’re having a hard time — I got $5 million worth of negative ads going at me,” Brat told inmates at the Chesterfield County jail on Wednesday. “How do you think I’m feeling? Nothing’s easy. For anybody. You think I’m a congressman. ‘Oh, life’s easy. This guys’s off having steaks. . . . Baloney, I got a daughter, she’s got to deal with that crap on TV every day. It’s tough.’ ”

Moments later, he quickly acknowledged to the inmates: “You got it harder — I’m not dismissing that.”

But his chat drew sharp criticism from Spanberger.

“These comments are disturbing and damaging in the way that they belittle and trivialize addiction and the challenges facing those in recovery,” Spanberger said. “However, time and time again, Congressman Brat has demonstrated he is a politician who is more concerned with his own reelection than the struggles and well-being of people in our communities, and sadly, his comments aren’t surprising.”

She added: “The truth is that Congressman Brat has also taken massive campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies, voted to give them a billion-
dollar tax break, and voted to limit access to addiction services.”

Brat campaign spokeswoman Katey Price did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The jailhouse comments were first reported by WCVE radio.

John Shinholser, a prominent Richmond-area advocate for people struggling with addiction, took up for Brat, who he said helped him secure a $600,000 grant for peer-to-peer recovery programs in jails.

“He’s one of the biggest champions we’ve got in the recovery community in Congress,” said Shinholser, a co-founder of the nonprofit McShin Foundation.

Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard, who had accompanied Brat to the jail, expressed frustration that Brat’s effort to learn more about addiction had been reduced to political fodder.

“The real losers here will be the people struggling with addiction inside our jail and across this Nation, now who become an after thought and a forgotten part of the story,” he wrote on Facebook.

Brat, who on Thursday received President Trump’s endorsement, is in a tough race against Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, a longtime GOP stronghold that appears to be in play in the Trump era.

He met with about 100 inmates at the jail Wednesday to hear about their challenges of recovery and life after incarceration. The meeting was organized through his congressional office and was not an official campaign event, but it dovetailed with Brat’s efforts to portray himself in the campaign as a practical and compassionate problem-solver.

“As a Christian, we love the least of these — we visit those in prison,” Brat said in a news release that also touted his bill to shift more money for recovery programs from Washington to state and local authorities. “As a member of Congress, one of the most moving experiences I have in this job is talking with recovering men and women fighting to rebuilding their lives.”

Brat seemed to be trying to make himself relatable to the inmates by sharing some of his own struggles. One instance came after a woman said she wanted to get a college degree but was not eligible for certain grants because of her felony conviction.

Brat, a former Randolph-
Macon College economics professor, advised her to get an entry-level job at a college where she might qualify for free tuition as an employee. He went on to say his two children could have attended Randolph-Macon for free when he was a professor, so he was in a financial pinch when he quit to go to Congress.

“I didn’t have any savings,” he said. “All went away — oops! So, plans change.”

Another woman complained that the recovery houses where inmates live as they transition out of jail are often in drug-
ridden neighborhoods, exposing them to temptation.

“They won’t allow us to be in nicer areas,” she said. “They want recovery homes to be right there on the corner where the drugs are dealt — that ‘not in my backyard’ thing.”

Brat’s reply suggested that upscale neighborhoods are not all they’re cracked up to be.

“You won’t believe the depression in those hoity-toity neighborhoods,” he said.

While his comments drew some criticism outside the jail, the inmates seemed to appreciate his visit. Many lined up to shake his hand afterward.

Inmate Demond Williams, 34, called him a “good man,” saying he appreciates “anybody that takes that time to find out what’s going on with addicts.”

Trump endorsed Brat on Thursday in a tweet that could cut both ways in a Richmond-area district where the president has ardent fans and foes.

“Congressman @DaveBratVA7th is one of the hardest working, and smartest, people in Washington,” Trump tweeted. “He is strong on the Border, Crime, the Military, our Vets and the 2nd Amendment. He is a powerful vote for MAGA and loves the Great State of Virginia. Dave has my Total Endorsement!”

Trump’s phrasing may sound familiar; he has used some of the same language when endorsing other Republicans this cycle.

Brat 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.

This year, Brat faces a strong challenger in Spanberger, a former federal law enforcement agent and CIA operative whose résumé may appeal to swing voters and moderate Republicans.

Brat released a statement thanking Trump. “Under this administration and Republican-led Congress, Virginians are seeing more jobs, higher take-home pay, and more opportunities for our kids graduating from school. The Republican-passed tax cuts combined with regulatory relief from the administration equals a strong economy for Virginia. With all this economic growth, we can’t afford to go back to the failed policies of Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.”

During his first — and likely only — debate with Spanberger on Monday, Brat mentioned Nancy Pelosi about 25 times, or once every 3.6 minutes. Spanberger has said she would not support Pelosi for speaker if Democrats win control of the House.

The sprawling district is a mix of Richmond suburbs and rural areas stretching from Culpeper to Nottoway County. Trump is popular in the 7th District’s rural areas, but he has greatly energized Democrats in the suburbs, where they helped deliver the governor’s mansion to Ralph Northam (D) last year and nearly erased the GOP’s 2-to-1 advantage in the House of Delegates. Independent political analysts rate the race a toss-up.

Spanberger, who does not accept corporate PAC donations, is ahead in fundraising. She raised nearly $3.6 million over the past three months — a record quarter in the Virginia 7th and more than the $2.8 million Brat raised for his last two campaigns combined. Brat raised $1 million for the quarter.