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Suburbs Could Be Key In Race For Virginia's 7th Congressional District


Four years ago, Virginia's 7th Congressional District was the site of a major political upset. A little-known economics professor, Dave Brat, defeated Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary. Now Brat is on the defensive in a district that includes suburbs crucial to Republicans but trending towards Democrats. NPR's Jessica Taylor reports from outside Richmond, Va.

JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: Democratic activist Uva Branham laughs when she thinks about President Trump comparing her to a mob.

UVA BRANHAM: It's so funny. It really is kind of hilarious - 75 years old, and so the last thing I could be is a mob (laughter).

TAYLOR: Branham is gathered with the liberal women of Chesterfield County passing out literature for Democrat Abigail Spanberger at a community festival. The retired grandmother was spurred into politics by Trump's victory and joined the LWCC. Branham says their group reached out to Brat last year, but they were rebuffed.

BRANHAM: Rather than talk to us about it, he just started to call us crazy people, and we're up in his grill, and we're chasing him.

TAYLOR: Chesterfield is a diversifying suburb of Richmond that could determine the race. Once a bastion of conservatism, it swung for Democrat Ralph Northam in last year's governor's race. Earlier that morning, Spanberger was marching in the rain at Glen Allen Day's parade. She's in Henrico, another suburban county that's rapidly changing.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We win. We vote. We win.

TAYLOR: Spanberger says she's felt the shift since the 2016 election.

ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: I think it's actually just a shift of people wanting to stand up for what is appropriate, what is civil discourse, really a functioning government. And in our particular district, we do have an incumbent who's a Tea Party member and more of an obstructionist in terms of his engagement as a representative.

TAYLOR: David Southall, a one-time Brat volunteer and former member of the Chesterfield Republican Committee, agrees.

DAVID SOUTHALL: I was fooled in 2014 and won't be fooled again.

TAYLOR: Southall says Brat has been ineffective as a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. He says there's a lot of other people in the suburban county who feel like he does about Brat. The Republican incumbent is expected to do well in the 7th's vast rural areas, but court-ordered redistricting in 2016 made the district more suburban.

SOUTHALL: This community was staunch Republican. I mean, I think the last time that the 7th was Democrat was the '70s or something - '60s, '70s. You know, it's changed a lot around here. It's going to change again.

TAYLOR: As Spanberger is back at the parade, she's shaking hands along the route, but many people already know who she is from the millions of dollars both parties are spending on ads.


SPANBERGER: I'm Abigail Spanberger.

MELTON: I know pretty well who you are.

SPANBERGER: It's nice to meet you. Good morning.

MELTON: You can't turn on a TV without knowing that (laughter).

TAYLOR: That's Forrest Melton. He tells me afterwards he's voting for Brat. He likes his stances on social issues and fiscal policy.

MELTON: Everything that she stands for is opposed to what I believe in.

TAYLOR: Brat's campaign did not participate in this story. But in ads, his message sounds consistent with his Tea Party roots - opposition to the Affordable Care Act and pushing lower taxes.


DAVE BRAT: So we cut taxes. We got government out of the way of your small businesses. Now thousands of Virginians are back to work. We put more money...

TAYLOR: But not everybody seems completely receptive to that message. John Wilson is an undecided voter but says he's leaning toward Spanberger.

JOHN WILSON: He's done OK, but I kind of feel like he's going the way Eric Cantor did. You know, he's going to - might be losing touch a little bit.

TAYLOR: Virginia is one of the earliest states to close on election night, and Dave Brat's fortunes could be a clue to which way things are going next Tuesday. Jessica Taylor, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR SEAT HEADREST SONG, "VINCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.

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