- The Washington Times - Monday, October 29, 2018

Rep. Dave Brat is a conservative Republican, but he’s struggling to keep his party in line as he tries to win re-election in his Central Virginia district.

A new Christopher Newport University poll released Monday found Democrat Abigail Spanberger with a 1 percentage-point lead, and shows her winning 96 percent of Democrats — while Mr. Brat trails with backing of just 89 percent of Republicans.

The race is one of four competitive GOP-held seats in Virginia, and they will go a long way toward testing whether Democrats take control of the House.

Mr. Brat says he’s comfortable with where he stands heading into next week’s elections, saying voters who may have been looking at another candidate are back in the fold after weighing what Democratic control would mean.

“The Republicans are coming home, independents are breaking our way after the Kavanaugh story, and so in the end, I think Virginia people are going to do the right thing,” Mr. Brat said in a recent interview with radio host John Fredericks.

Mr. Brat’s campaign was similarly confident when asked about the poll on Monday.

“With $6 million from the left trying to buy this election, we know we have a fight on our hands, but we will prevail,” said campaign spokeswoman Katey Price.

The congressman did lead Ms. Spanberger by 8 percentage points among independents in the poll, making his lag among Republicans all the more striking.

Mr. Brat earned his seat four years ago after he toppled then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary, portraying Mr. Cantor as having become consumed by the Washington swamp.

He quickly became a conservative stalwart, joined the House Freedom Caucus and emerged as a key supporter of President Trump’s agenda — though he also has faced some criticism from people who say he isn’t as accessible to his constituents as he vowed to be.

Some in the district grumble that lingering bad blood within the GOP over Mr. Cantor’s loss could be hindering Mr. Brat’s support among Republicans.

But Rick Buchanan, who chairs the Virginia Tea Party, said any GOP opposition is confined to a very small number of “Never Bratters” who argue that he hasn’t been conservative enough for them.

He dismissed those concerns as illogical.

“What do you want? Where are you coming from?” Mr. Buchanan said with a laugh.

He said Mr. Brat has been a “good conservative” and an “excellent legislator” who tea party groups are energized over.

The 7th Congressional District runs from the Richmond-area suburbs into a rural swath of Central Virginia that includes Culpeper and runs close to Washington, D.C.’s outer suburbs. The district is considered Republican territory — though not as red as it once was.

The suburban parts of the district are gaining more influence at the same time that Mr. Trump is turning off suburban voters, said J. Tucker Martin, a GOP consultant who has worked on several Virginia campaigns.

“Chesterfield and Henrico keep growing, and that’s bringing more suburban voters into the mix who, broadly speaking, are less likely to support Trump-era Republicans,” Mr. Martin said.

Gov. Ralph Northam became the first Democrat since 1961 to carry Chesterfield County in a governor’s race when he defeated Republican Ed Gillespie last year.

Mr. Gillespie still carried the 7th District by 4 percentage points — though that was down from the 6.5-point margin of Mr. Trump’s victory and the 15-point margin of Mr. Brat’s first re-election victory in 2016.

“This is part of the GOP’s deal with Trump,” Mr. Martin said. “He won the White House. But he is costing the party dearly amongst well-educated, suburban voters. That’s playing out here. It’s the Trump effect.”

Carrie Pruett, a Democratic activist from Henrico, said she has detected energy steadily moving toward the Democrats in the area over the last few electoral cycles, notably in the western part of the county.

“I’ve seen a notable shift. I would say in ‘16, ‘17 and ‘18 — just a very increasing Democratic visibility every year,” Ms. Pruett said. “I do think that there are definitely still some hard feelings about 2014, so I would not be surprised if that’s a factor.”

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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