MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — The Liberal Women of Chesterfield County did not exist when Representative Dave Brat, propelled by Tea Party-infused energy, shocked the Republican establishment in 2014 and defeated the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in a primary triumph here that presaged even greater political upheaval two years later.
Now they’re all up in his grill.
Brat stunned Cantor, building an army of grass-roots supporters on the ground that was aided by such conservative commentators as Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin. Then he made waves of another kind last year, complaining to Republican supporters about women, their health care protests, and their dogged presence in his face.
“The women are in my grill no matter where I go,” he moaned, adding, “They come up — ‘When is your next town hall?’ And believe me, it’s not to give positive input.”
They haven’t gone away. A race that was once considered solidly in the Republican camp is now rated a tossup, and the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County are stirring women to come out in such great numbers that the Democratic nominee, Abigail Spanberger, a well-credentialed former CIA officer, may make history of a different sort in a district that has been deeply Republican for decades.
“Republicans are now feeling like me when the Tea Party emerged,” said Becky Stuart Conner, a member of the Chesterfield County group.
For Republicans, Brat’s race is a bulwark in their defensive perimeter, the kind of district they must win to keep control of the House. The area’s mix of affluent suburbs and conservative rural stretches resembles the Ohio district where a Republican candidate in a House special election Tuesday, Troy Balderson, clings to a slim lead.
For Democrats, Spanberger’s candidacy represents a test of the breadth and effectiveness of their coalition of newly emboldened female voters aghast at President Trump’s White House tenure — and the ability of fed-up women to build an insurgency of their own.
“I think it is ironic, humorous,” Spanberger said of Brat being on the receiving end of a rebellion. “I read it as a cautionary tale of coming into the scene saying you want to do things differently and not really doing it differently.”
Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District runs from the exurbs of Washington to counties south of Richmond, roughly tracking the decisive battles of the Civil War where Ulysses S. Grant ultimately defeated Robert E. Lee. In some of the more rural stretches, Confederate flags hang from front porches.
But far more common are the booming commercial and housing developments closer to Richmond that are eating into what was once a conservative redoubt. Two counties that hug the commonwealth’s capital are likely to determine the outcome: Henrico, where Spanberger lives and which increasingly leans Democratic, and Chesterfield, a onetime Republican stronghold that is showing signs of change.
The area has had a surge of college-educated women; Henrico has gained about 65,000 residents since 2000, and Chesterfield has added 82,000. As those numbers have increased, so have the fortunes of Democrats. Signs of change in Chesterfield County were evident in the governor’s race last year, when the Democratic candidate, Lieutenant Governor Ralph S. Northam, won the county by about 700 votes.
Brat is hardly alone among Tea Party-aligned Republicans who are now in competitive races in Texas, California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and other states where the swelling suburbs have chipped away at the rural Republican strongholds.
“Republicans are in the same dilemma Democrats were in when people started to become a little dissatisfied with Barack Obama,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, which conducts surveys of Virginia voters. “They couldn’t get enough of the benefits of enthusiasm for Obama and couldn’t get rid of enough of the baggage of Obama. This is amplified in the Trump era for Republicans.”
In Virginia’s Seventh District, many of the women have been engaged in their communities, through school groups and local organizations, but they are becoming involved in campaigns for the first time.
“They are novices in politics but not novices in being organized and engaged,” Spanberger said.
Kim Drew Wright said that after Trump’s election, she posted on Facebook to find like-minded women in what came to be known as the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County. Her first meeting drew 100 women. Now the group has more than 3,000 members on its private Facebook page.
They have fused social and political activities, with meetings called to write postcards for candidates over drinks or coffee, hat-knitting sessions, and broader-based activities to get out the vote.
“It brought us super local but made us realize how important it is to be connected,” Wright said.