Dave Brat, the insurgent candidate who unseated Eric Cantor in 2014, is looking to fend off Democrat Abigail Spanberger by following the GOP’s 2018 midterm playbook: tie her to Nancy Pelosi, abolish ICE, and socialized medicine.
CHESTERFIELD, Va. – Republican Rep. Dave Brat is running against a far-left Democrat, an all-out liberal. Trouble is, that caricature bears little resemblance to the candidate actually opposing him.
Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer, is campaigning as a centrist willing to work across the aisle. In her campaign office in Henrico County, Spanberger rattled off to USA TODAY the list of Democratic policies she’s against: a government-run single-payer health care system, an open border and shuttering U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And, if Democrats take back the House, Spanberger doesn’t think House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should become speaker again.
But to hear Brat tell it, if Spanberger is elected to replace him in Virginia’s heavily Republican 7th Congressional District, she’ll vote with the far-left of her party – even if on the campaign trail she says she won’t.
As Brat drove through suburban Richmond with a USA TODAY reporter earlier this month, he said Democrats have moved hard left. “They’re way off what the American people want, and they’re going to find that out this election,” he said. “These people that say, ‘I’m gonna run and be independent and neutral,’ you know better than that.”
Republicans like Brat, who face surprisingly competitive races across the country, are trying to tie all Democrats to the most progressive wing of the party, a faction pushing Medicare for All and advocates abolishing ICE.
GOP candidates have accepted they’re linked to President Donald Trump’s polarizing record regardless of how they campaign, so to offset that burden they are trying to saddle Democrats with their own boogeyman. In this case, a boogeywoman – Nancy Pelosi.
Trump reinforced that message Wednesday, posting a video on Twitter saying “Pelosi and the Democrats want to abolish the brave men and women of ICE, what I want to do is abolish the killers in ISIS.”
Pelosi counters that Trump “is hallucinating when he characterizes Dems’ position on protecting the borders & defeating ISIS.” The minority leader’s spokesman Drew Hammill said Pelosi opposes single-payer health care and getting rid of ICE.
Democrats acknowledge Pelosi – and the potential for her to be House speaker again – riles voters. A Monmouth University poll from May had Pelosi’s approval rating at 17 percentage points, with 44 percent of people disapproving of her.
But can the GOP strategy of painting Democrats as extremists be effective if centrist candidates are running far away from Pelosi and the progressive agenda?
Spanberger says the idea is “almost comical.”
Spanberger said Brat’s strategy reminds her of the Dr. Seuss book “Green Eggs and Ham” where the narrator repeatedly has to say all of the places he will not eat the dish because the questioner doesn’t believe that the narrator couldn’t possibly end up liking green eggs and ham. Spanberger said she has to counter Brat’s charges “time and time again,” reiterating she doesn’t back Pelosi for speaker or the far-left policies she’s being tied to.
In Congressional races round the country, similar scenarios are playing out.
In New York state, GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney released a TV ad that said her opponent “supports Pelosi’s (Medicare for All) plan” and would be a “rubber stamp” on her agenda. But, Democratic candidate Anthony Brindisi, a New York state assemblyman, said in a phone interview with USA TODAY, that he does not Pelosi for speaker.
On the Medicare for All issue, Brindisi voted in favor of a single-payer bill in the New York state assembly and as recently as July said favorable things about Medicare for All. However, he told USA TODAY that he does not support that policy at a national level.
In Kentucky, a TV ad paid for by the Congressional Leadership Fund targets retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath as someone “backed by liberal extremists who want to eliminate the law enforcement agency that enforces our immigration laws” and she is supportive of “open borders.”
McGrath’s Campaign Manager Mark Nickolas called the ad “ridiculous” and said the Kentucky Democrat may not want a wall, but is for “very strong borders” and “she doesn’t think ICE is the problem.”
Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Paul Ryan-aligned super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, defended the ads about McGrath. She noted that some of the high-profile Democratic senators who have raised money for McGrath’s campaign – including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand – have voiced support for abolishing ICE.
There’s no denying Democrats in competitive districts are feeling the heat. According to NBC News, over 50 Democratic candidates, both new candidates and incumbents, have said they won’t support Pelosi.
Pelosi and “her San Francisco values” are “absolutely toxic across the country,” said CLF spokeswoman Alexander. CLF is hammering candidates across the country on “the resistance movement, and the agenda that comes with it.”
Republicans have persisted with their midterm playbook, even starting to press Democrats to specify just how far their lack of support for Pelosi extends. They claim Democrats might oppose Pelosi in a private caucus vote, but back her in the bright light of a House chamber vote.
The strategy may have paid off in a special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District in early August. Danny O’Connor, the Democrat, lost by less than 1 percentage point after saying he wouldn’t support Pelosi privately, but if his party chose to put Pelosi up against a Republican for speaker, O’Connor admitted he would vote for her.
Isaac Baker, a Democratic strategist who worked on O’Connor’s campaign, said the Republican strategy will fail as long as Democrats make “very clear that they’re going to be an independent voice.” O’Connor barely lost the race, which Democrats say is a good sign for November when dozens of districts are more favorable to the left than Ohio’s 12th.
Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb stressed his independence during a special election in March. Republicans tried to say that the Democrat would be Pelosi’s “little lamb” in Washington, but the ex-Marine and federal prosecutor ran a straight-to-camera ad where he reminded voters he didn’t support Pelosi. He eked out a win in that race.
Republicans say that even though they lost the Pennsylvania race, they don’t expect it to happen all over the country. They say Lamb was a unicorn of a candidate and their candidate was weak.
Republican strategists say that battle-tested incumbents should come out OK on Election Day, as long as lawmakers don’t forget to run on their name ID and record.
Brat certainly has the name ID. The conservative Republican made national headlines when he toppled then-majority leader Eric Cantor in the primary in 2014. He’s continued to grab headlines from his perch as one of the most influential members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus.
Back in Virginia earlier this month, Brat sweated through his buttoned-down shirt in the heavy humidity, talking to USA TODAY as he worked the crowds at back-to-back neighborhood events outside Richmond.
He said he was confident he’d pull off a win because people in the district know him and know he has voted the way he promised he would. Which is why he’s pressing Spanberger so hard on her campaign claims. He and his allies say if she makes it to Congress she’ll cave to Pelosi.
Dana Smith believes that pitch. The teacher and longtime Brat supporter said his “problem” with Spanberger was that she “paints herself as a middle-of-the-road apple pie mom,” but won’t vote that way.
“She, and many other Democrats, are totally disingenuous in how they present themselves. They run one way and serve another,” he said.
But Brat’s argument may not convince other voters.
David Southall, a small business owner, used to be a Republican and Brat supporter, but now he’s all in for Spanberger. He said he doesn’t buy the GOP attack tactics.
“Republicans will swear up and down she’s for open borders when she’s not,” Southall said. “You don’t become a CIA agent in not believing in borders.”
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