- Associated Press - Saturday, July 21, 2018

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - As Democratic congressional candidate Abigail Spanberger mingled with supporters at a Richmond brewery, one person hung like a shadow over the gleaming brew tanks and grilled food truck pizza.

As they watched their kids play with Legos in the corner of the bar Wednesday night, Kristen Martin and William Caulder grumbled about President Donald Trump’s latest scandal, a controversial news conference with Russia’s president. Liberal activists made their way through the crowd, recruiting people to attend a Russia-themed protest later that night outside the office of Republican Rep. Dave Brat, the district’s current congressman. When Spanberger stood at the front of the room to answer questions, Melissa Dart, a Democratic voter, sought a response to the “uniquely sobering” events in Helsinki.

“This week has been a really difficult-to-watch week,” Spanberger replied, saying Americans must accept that Russia interfered in the U.S. elections. “From an intelligence perspective and from a national security perspective, the concern that I have is: What are they going to interfere with next?”

Another difficult week for Trump is a good week for Spanberger, one of dozens of Democrats running strong in Republican territory thanks, in part, to the president. While Republicans grappled with how to respond to Trump’s performance in Helsinki, Democrats’ path was clear. Across the country, Trump’s ability to constant court controversy is providing weekly shots of adrenaline to already-energized Democratic voters.

This week’s developments were tailor-made for Spanberger, a 38-year-old former CIA operative equally comfortable discussing undercover anti-terrorism operations and the work of Parent Teacher Associations.

Still, even with Spanberger on the ticket, Democrats shouldn’t have a serious chance in this district, which stretches from the suburbs west of Richmond to rural towns at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Trump won the area by eight points in 2016 and Brat, famous for ousting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor four years ago, had a 15-point re-election victory.

But Democrats have a not-so-secret weapon: Trump. From suburban Virginia to southern California, the president has sparked a Democratic renaissance, prompting candidates, activists and voters to pour their outrage, money and time into local races across the country. After years of bashing the GOP establishment, Republican lawmakers and operatives say Brat is now begging for financial support from the national party. Brat declined multiple interview requests.

Strategists from both parties agree that opposition to Trump alone isn’t enough to win a congressional race. And Democrats and Republicans doubt the election will be decided by any singular action taken by Trump. While polling shows most Americans disagreed with Trump’s handling of his summit with Putin, opinions largely divided along party lines.

“The Russia stuff is going to be a footnote at the end of this,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who once headed the GOP’s campaign committee. “There’s so much happening and this is the crisis du jour.”

Democrats see it slightly differently: Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who’s hosting a fundraiser for Virginia Democratic House candidates at his home this weekend, said the steady stream of controversy reminds Democrats why they need to show up at the polls.

“Every day is one more notch in the belt of people who think Trump is plain insane,” he said. “This is going to be a big turnout year because of Trump.”

Gretchen Metzroth, a soft-spoken 62-year-old, never considered herself particularly political. That changed in November 2016. Since then, she’s joined a protest choir, and regularly writes letters, emails and calls Congress. “I can’t even watch the news when the president is on because it just gets me so angry,” she said, standing with protesters on a patch a grass in front of Brat’s congressional office. “But it also makes me want to do something.”

Trump’s win has helped Democrats recruit scores of first-time candidates, even in places the party typically loses. Some of those newly minted politicians are veterans and intelligence experts, which could help the party speak to national security issues that have often played to Republicans.

Like many of the new Democratic candidates, Spanberger was at least partially motivated to run by Trump’s foreign policy, specifically his early push to pursue a ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries. This week, Spanberger assailed Trump for his meeting with Putin. But typically, she says, she doesn’t spend much time talking about foreign policy or the president. “What the president has done is he has created a level of uneasiness for many people,” she says. “But I want people to vote for me. It’s not enough to have people vote against Donald Trump.”

The party has flocked to her candidacy. She raised $1.35 million to Brat’s $1.34 million, though she spent the bulk of that to win the competitive primary leaving her with less in the bank than Brat. She’s backed by top national and state officials and Democratic groups like EMILY’s List. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Richmond native who has a comfortable lead in his re-election race, and McAuliffe are eagerly helping Spanberger with joint campaign appearances, campaign dollars and organization support.

Spanberger has also courted the new activism flowing into the party. She’s refused to take corporate PAC money and said she won’t back House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, arguing the party needs new energy.

Supporters in places like Goochland County are thrilled to see the Spanberger signs suddenly cropping up on their neighbors’ lawns.

“I’m a Republican in recovery,” said Linda Caldwell, a retiree proudly wearing a “Brat is the Wurst” pin. “She is talking about solving problems. David Brat just talks about things that make people angry.”

Despite such enthusiasm, Spanberger faces an uphill climb. Many Republican voters in the area like the president’s agenda, even if they don’t always agree with how he expresses it.

“It’s his personality that has just thrown everybody because you expect your president to be calm and agreeable, but he’s anything but,” said Judy Tunstile, as she finished up her shopping at the Costco in Chesterfield, Virginia. “But he’s getting things done.”

Brat faces some unique challenges. He’s failed to win back more establishment Republicans who supported Cantor. Some Republicans say he has little real organization and struggles to keep staff. His office has one of the highest turnover rates in the House, according to LegiStorm, a non-partisan website that tracks Capitol Hill’s workforce. And some believe controversial Republican senate candidate Corey Stewart will depress turn-out statewide.

Unlike some Republican incumbents, who’ve stressed their independence from the president, Brat has remained one of Trump’s strongest supporters. He said on social media that the U.S. government should oppose foreign interference in elections, blaming former President Barack Obama for having “emboldened” Putin.

That kind of support is exactly what infuriates Democrats.

“It’s simple,” said Toni Bolt, a retiree from Chesterfield. “Brat’s for Trump, so I’m not for him.”

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