Four years ago, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) won his seat in Congress by defeating then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in an upset primary victory in a district that’s been represented by a Republican since 1971.
On Tuesday, Democrat Abigail Spanberger handed Brat his own upset loss — barely.
With 99 percent of the district reporting, Spanberger led Brat by nearly 2,000 votes, 163,374 to 161,482.
“I won because I prioritized being present across our communities, I prioritized listening to people, and I prioritized the issues that are important to the people across our district,” Spanberger, a former CIA operative, told HuffPost before the results were finalized.
Spanberger focused her campaign on health care, after Brat voted with Republicans in 2017 to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a GOP plan that would have almost certainly raised prices for people with pre-existing conditions. Brat, as a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was key in changing protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and was among the conservatives who pressured Republicans who initially tried to keep those protections intact.
Spanberger found traction in the R+6 district ― meaning it’s on average 6 percentage points more Republican than the U.S. ― by arguing Brat had put his ideology ahead of the best interests of constituents. She consistently dinged Brat on health care. She argued that he forsook his credentials as a fiscal conservative when he voted for a deficit-busting tax cut bill. And she countered Brat’s attacks that she would be just another vote for Nancy Pelosi by vowing not to support Pelosi for speaker if Democrats win the majority in the House.
Despite Spanberger’s promise, Brat persisted in connecting her to Pelosi, mentioning Pelosi’s name 21 times during their only debate. Brat also repeatedly tried to tie Spanberger to a $32 trillion cost estimate for a Medicare for all health care system ― a proposal Spanberger said she doesn’t support.
Brat’s campaign focused on energizing conservatives in the most Republican-heavy parts of the district, while presenting himself as a moderate willing to cross party lines in Democratic-leaning areas of the Richmond suburbs.
Brat ran an ad touting a bill he authored to stop medical research on dogs, featuring cheerful whistling and loads of puppies. He also had unabashedly conservative figures like Freedom Caucus founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Fox New favorite Sebastian Gorka, and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon campaign for him.
The dual-track campaign strategy was essential in Brat’s district, where the more rural areas strongly support President Donald Trump, and the suburbs circling Richmond are more concerned with holding Trump accountable.
Ultimately, Brat couldn’t overcome the political headwinds, even in his Republican-leaning district during a night when Democrats seemed to need every seat they could get to take back the majority. Spanberger’s resume as a former law enforcement official and CIA operative appealed to a large swath of swing voters, and the ‘D’ next to her name was enough for many who want more aggressive oversight of Trump.
In many ways, the district flipping to Democratic control is part of a larger story about suburban, affluent, educated voters ― many once thought of as “country club Republicans” ― moving toward the Democratic Party. And it’s another data point in how female voters are increasingly supporting Democrats and women ― and particularly Democratic women.
(I profiled this race on an episode of The Wave, and interviewed Brat and Spanberger about how the Democratic future is female.)