The Incumbent: Dave Brat
For U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, everything comes down to the economy. It is the touchstone he returns to repeatedly during an interview and the subject on which he is hinging his re-election campaign.
The Republican incumbent, 54, met with the Review in his campaign headquarters in a Glen Allen office park. In shirt sleeves on one of the last days before fall arrived in earnest, he strode into the office suite and settled in for a conversation of about 40 minutes before heading out for another appointment.
His blue eyes steady behind wire-rimmed glasses, Brat answered questions rapidly.
The former professor of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College said the federal tax cuts are the measure he is most proud of during his time as the 7th District’s representative in Congress.
He said the “average family” will have “$2,500 back in their pocket” as a result of the tax cuts. Add that to low unemployment rates and increased hiring by small businesses, and Brat sees “endless good news” all around.
Asked to describe his personal role in Republican tax reform, he pointed to a new development. He said Texas Congressman Kevin Brady, chair of the Committee on Ways and Means, based an item in the proposed second phase of federal tax changes on a bill Brat put forward.
In 2015, Brat introduced legislation that would create the Universal Savings Account, a tax-free account with no upper limit on the investor’s income and no penalty if funds are withdrawn before an investor retires. Brady’s proposal, like Brat’s, would allow an annual contribution of up to $5,500 to the account.
Brat said he worked with Brady but was still surprised when his ideas made it into the proposal Brady shared on the House floor.
“I said, ‘That looks a lot like my bill,’ and [Brady] said, ‘That is your bill.’ I said, ‘Thank you!’”
Federal government as “blunt instrument”
Within the 7th District, Brat believes the most pressing problems his constituents face all circle back to money.
“Everything that needs to get funded—every family problem, drug problem, opioid problem, trafficking problem, broadband, education funding, mental health funding—everything depends critically on having a growing economy. So that’s the most pressing,” he said.
He recently has met with people suffering from substance abuse and is concerned with increasing rates of suicidal depression among children.
“The federal government can do a lot on mental-health solutions, K-12 education, meals for kids in poverty—we can do those pieces. The opioid part of it we’re working on, and the trafficking we’re working on. And so we’re working on all those issues, but there are some deeper underlying cultural issues that people are starting to grapple with. But they’re still deep, and the experts don’t have a coherent answer.”
Because he views the federal government as “a pretty blunt instrument” when it comes to addressing social problems, he said he prefers “to take the money from D.C. and try to bring it down to the states and to the localities … and let them self-govern.”
Books, debates and 10-speed bikes
Brat and his wife, Laura, live in Glen Allen and have two children, a son who attends the University of Virginia and a daughter enrolled in Henrico public schools.
The oldest of three boys, Brat spent his early years in Alma, Michigan, a small town a couple of hours north of Detroit. When he was in eighth grade, the family moved to Minnesota. His father was a physician and his mother was a social worker.
As a boy, he read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard and participated in family debates about religion, philosophy and ethics.
He said he and his brothers had an incentive to keep up with their reading: “We got paid 10 bucks a book. We bought all our first 10-speed bikes and all that stuff [with] book money.”
A Presbyterian, Brat went to Hope College, a small Christian liberal arts college in Michigan, and his father’s alma mater. After earning a degree in business, he went to work for Arthur Andersen and later as a consultant to the World Bank. Ensconced in a high-rise office in Detroit’s Renaissance Center and then in “a fancy place” in downtown Chicago, he was on track for a successful career in business. But, to the amazement of his colleagues, he decided to leave and pursue his intellectual interests in religion and ethics.
Putting business and ethics together
With thoughts of becoming a religion professor, he earned a master’s degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. He spent a visiting semester at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., and met the Rev. Philip Wogaman, pastor of Foundry Methodist Church, whose book on economics and ethics “put my two worlds together,” Brat said.
With the guidance of Wogaman and others at Wesley Seminary, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program in economics at nearby American University and graduated in 1995. While in D.C., he met his future wife, who was working in interior design.
After graduation, he took a position at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland and rose to the rank of full professor and served as chair of the department of economics and business.
His interest in politics “came late,” he said. During his tenure at Randolph-Macon, he volunteered for state Senator Walter Stosch, a Baptist and a certified public accountant with whom he felt a kinship.
“I worked with him mainly on education issues, and we worked on disability, autism, issues for three years solid,” Brat said.
Brat twice sought the Republican nomination to the state legislature and said he was twice turned away by party operatives. But to the astonishment of politicos on both sides of the aisle, he won the 2014 Republican primary over incumbent U.S. Representative Eric Cantor and then beat his Democratic opponent, fellow Randolph-Macon professor Jack Trammell, in the general election. In 2016, he defeated Democrat Eileen Bedell.
Issues of concern to Orange County
A member of the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives, Brat was recently endorsed for re-election by President Donald Trump.
Among Orange County farmers, Trump’s tariffs on imported goods have been a cause for concern. Other countries have responded to Trump by imposing tariffs of their own, notably on U.S. farm crops, soybeans prominent among them. In August, the White House pledged $4.7 billion in relief for farmers who lost income due to the trade war, mainly with China.
Asked how tariffs help farmers, Brat said, “They don’t help. I’m a free-trader; I’m against tariffs. The goal of the White House and the Congress is to get tariffs to zero. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t want to do that.”
He said Trump’s tariffs are intended to create “a level trading field,” especially with China. He trusts Larry Kudlow, White House chief economic adviser, who has said it will take months, not years, to get China “to play by the rules” and render Trump’s tariffs unnecessary.
Brat weighed in on other local topics. He said he has helped Orange County in its pursuit of broadband access for the entire county. A bureaucratic glitch has delayed completion of the project, but he said he is working to ensure federal funding comes through.
Health care as “an affordability issue”
When health insurance policy came up, Brat said he has always had health insurance but has known people who didn’t have it.
And were they worried about not having coverage?
“Sure, they’re just like all other people. You have anxiety paying the bills, right? Mainly it’s an affordability issue. And so that’s what we’re working on, so people can afford it.”
He denounced President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which he said did not keep large insurance companies in check.
“You’ve got to make healthcare affordable, and the way to do that is economics—there’s no other way to make anything affordable.”
He advocates increased competition between health insurance companies as a means of driving the price down.
“Doing a great job”
Jordan Marshall, chair of the Republican Orange County Committee, speaks highly of Brat. An Orange native, Marshall said he has been in frequent contact with the congressman during his time in office.
“I’ve had the opportunity to be with him around people who agree with his point of view and people who disagree with him. He gives [those who disagree] the same sincerity and genuineness he would give anyone else.”
He said he has contacted Brat on behalf of Orange County constituents in need of help. In his observation, Brat looks at problems from a variety of perspectives and considers how an issue affecting one person might be “a larger issue or concern for other voters in the district.”
In short, Marshall said, “I think he’s doing a great job for us in Congress.”
For more information on Dave Brat’s views on key campaign issues, see davebrat.com.
The Challenger: Abigail Spanberger
Recent polls have shown Democratic congressional candidate Abigail Spanberger in a close race against Republican incumbent Dave Brat, but on Monday, it was declared a dead heat, according to Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy.
Spanberger, 39, is betting that when the votes are tallied, a majority of District 7 voters will want a moderate Democrat to help take Congress in a new direction.
Two weeks before the election, she arrived in Orange for a mid-afternoon interview looking relaxed and cheerful.
The former CIA officer settled in at a restaurant booth and sipped hot tea while answering questions about campaign issues and her background.
She said health care is the issue that comes up most frequently when she talks to voters. The rising costs of health insurance premiums and “the high cost of prescription drugs and, in some cases, rising costs of prescription drugs” are very much on voters’ minds.
She said people also express concern that “healthcare continues to be a hyper-partisan political issue when it’s so important and foundational to an individual’s health and the health of a family.”
She does not support the so-called “single-payer option,” which would be a federally funded health care system. Instead, she favors a public option, detailed in the proposed Medicare-X Choice Act, which would allow citizens not yet eligible for Medicare to buy a public health plan offering the same services and availability as Medicare.
She also supports reinstatement of the individual mandate, a component of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In her view, the individual mandate, which required everyone to have health insurance, stabilizes the insurance marketplace.
Civility, economic growth, education and broadband access
Among other topics coming up on the campaign trail, she said voters tell her about their mounting frustration with Congress. “From a values basis,” she said, “people talk frequently about the lack of civility in our political conversations and their desire for Congress to just start accomplishing things and getting things done.”
She says economic opportunity is another key issue. The concern is not just individual employment, Spanberger said, but also the question, “How can central Virginia be a place where more employers can be attracted to come here?”
She connects discussions about economic growth with education, and said families have told her they want their children to have “a great opportunity for a good education, elementary school through high school,” and not end up with huge student-loan debts in exchange for a college degree.
She said rural broadband access supports both economic and educational opportunity and is an emerging health care issue as well. To support this claim, she points to telemedicine—that is, medical evaluations conducted via online consultations, a boon to rural areas short on health care professionals.
Spanberger said she is glad Orange County is moving toward completion of a broadband project that will expand and speed up internet services for people throughout the county. But she notes there are six other rural counties in the district that need similar access.
“There are about 500 farms across the 7th District. Well, farmers need internet just as much as a small business owner in Henrico or Chesterfield County, because it’s the way that business is done.”
In her view, a divide springs up between those who have an essential resource and those who don’t—and the people who don’t have the resource inevitably fall behind their peers.
A different take on tax cuts
In her assessment of Republican tax cuts, Spanberger spoke in measured tones.
“Well, the fiscal year  numbers are out. The fiscal year ended Sept. 30, and the deficit for fiscal year 18 is more than the deficit for fiscal year 17. So [the tax cuts are] not paying for themselves; we’re continuing to grow deeper and deeper in debt,” she said, citing an estimate that the tax cuts will increase the deficit by $1.9 trillion over the next 10 years.
But what about indicators showing growth in the economy?
Spanberger replied, “The GDP [gross domestic product] is in a good place, but real wages are down or stagnant, and that’s an important piece, because if we’re talking about what actually spurs economic growth and is good for our economy, it’s real middle-class growth and real middle-class benefit, and that just is not what occurred with this tax bill.”
Moving along from the economy, she commented on the importance of a free press: “The role of the free press in this country is so foundational to who we are that it is literally the First Amendment. The ability to speak our minds and the ability to have a press to report what’s happening in our country and in the world is what historically has differentiated us from other countries through the changing times.”
A love of languages, a dream of service
Spanberger is a native of New Jersey and the oldest of three daughters. While she was growing up, her father was a federal law enforcement officer, and her mother was a nurse. Her mother took young Abigail along when she did voter canvassing and has long been active in advocating for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
The family moved around when she was a child due to her father’s career but settled in Short Pump, near extended family, around the time she was 13. She has called Virginia home ever since.
As a student in J. R. Tucker High School’s Spanish immersion program, Spanberger was, in her words, “very academic” in her focus and already envisioning a career in the CIA. She served as president of the National Honor Society and co-captain of the debate team and participated in school plays.
After a year at the College of William & Mary, she transferred to the University of Virginia and studied French, Spanish, German and Italian. She graduated with a major in French literature and a minor in foreign affairs. While in high school she was a summer exchange student in Costa Rica, and she studied in France during college.
She went on to earn an MBA at a business school in Germany. After initially following in her father’s footsteps and working as a federal law enforcement officer, she fulfilled her dream of joining the CIA and became an operations officer. Drawing on her knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, she worked overseas collecting intelligence and served stateside as well.
In 2014, Spanberger came home to Henrico County. She and her husband, Adam, a software engineer, live with their three children in Glen Allen. She worked for a consulting firm specializing in higher education before launching her campaign for Congress in July of 2017.
Family support and leaps along the way
Spanberger attributes much of her success in life to her family, teachers and friends. She gives particular credit to her mother, who spent time in foster care as a young child, and her father, one of four children, whose mother died when he was 7 years old.
“They struggled,” she said, “and as a result of that, were committed to giving my sisters and me all of the opportunities that we would ever need.”
She continued, “My parents really created a very, very stable childhood that was a springboard for me to have whatever sort of success I wanted to pursue. I’m very comfortable acknowledging the fact that I am where I am because of influences throughout my life, be it my babysitter when I was a little kid who opened my eyes to foreign languages or my parents, who worked so hard to create the stability in my life that they didn’t have, or teachers who encouraged me and friends who pushed me along the way.”
In more recent times, she has had solid support from her husband.
Her face lighting up with a big smile, she said, “When we were getting married, I said, ‘OK, now’s the time for me to tell you that I plan on being an undercover CIA person, so that’s my job offer. I’m waiting to start.’
“He’s been taken aback by some of my leaps,” she continued, but he remains fully supportive. “He’ll tell people, ‘Every time she wants to take a leap, I leap with her and it always works out.’”
“The ideal candidate”
Terry Anderson, chair of the Orange County Democratic Committee, said of the tight race in the traditionally Republican-leaning 7th District, “Let’s face it, it’s a difficult area for a Democratic candidate. You have to be really, really good to have a prospect of winning. Obviously, [Spanberger] does.”
Anderson said he has gotten to know Spanberger pretty well over the course of the campaign. He likes her strong background in public service and world affairs and considers her well-prepared, knowledgeable about the issues and “a quick study.”
As Election Day nears, Anderson is optimistic: “I think she’s the ideal candidate.”
For more information on Abigail Spanberger, see abigailspanberger.com.