This Democrat Is Running as the Tough Guy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The old right-wing saw that Democrats are soft on national security and terrorism isn't going to cut it against Abigail Spanberger.

She's the Virginia Democrat running to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. Representative David Brat, who has lobbed the usual GOP charges that she's for "open borders" and a weak defense.

Speaking to about 100 voters last week at the Hardywood Brewery in Goochland County, she flashed strong credentials and replied: "I'm for securing our borders. I'm a former CIA operative." Then she threw in a dig at Brat for his embrace of President Donald Trump's soft attitude toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and his passivity about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election: "I'm the one who worked to protect the country from foreign threats."

Spanberger is one of a number of Democratic women running for office in November who are political novices with national-security backgrounds. She spent eight years in the Central Intelligence Agency in the U.S. and overseas, returning home four years ago. Early last year she said she heard Brat at a forum praising Trump's proposed ban on travel from a few predominantly Muslim countries as a national security measure and was dismayed.

"What he was saying was not true," Spanberger said. "He just didn't understand it." That, along with alarm about Trump and votes by House Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, spurred her to jump into the congressional race.

It's a contest for a district that stretches from the suburbs of Richmond to the exurbs of Washington, with rural stretches and small towns in between. Four years ago, Brat, a Tea Party candidate, scored one of the great Republican primary upsets in congressional history by defeating Representative Eric Cantor, who was on his way to becoming House speaker.

It's a Republican district, where Brat won easily in the last two general elections and which Trump carried in 2016 while losing the state. But Democrats who forecast gains in districts where Hillary Clinton won, or where there's an open seat, see Brat's district as one that could provide a cushion as they seek to pick up the 24 seats they would need to regain control of the House. As in similar races from Little Rock, Arkansas, to the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, they think right-wing Republicans are vulnerable to strong challengers in a favorable year.

Spanberger, who ran away with what was supposed to be a close primary contest last month, has over 2,000 volunteers. The enthusiasm for her candidacy among women in the district was palpable in interviews there with voters last week. At a Starbucks, Spanberger outlined a path to victory: "I will do very well in the Richmond suburbs and have to cut his margins in smaller places like Orange."

Interviews with voters at lunchtime at the Forked on Main restaurant in Orange — a charming town of 5,000 that happens to be my birthplace — suggest that there's cause for her optimism, even in a place like Orange County that voted better than 2-to-1 for Trump.

"I was afraid to put up a Hillary yard sign," said Lynne Lewis, a retired archaeologist, who said that Spanberger signs would go up as soon as she gets them.

The ex-CIA officer also dazzled residents earlier at a meet-and-greet in Orange.

"She's a steel magnolia," said Bill Speiden, a local farmer. Democrat Ellen Wessel, who works at nearby Montpelier, the home of James Madison, predicted that Spanberger would do much better than the previous Brat challengers. "Before, we just put up sacrificial lambs," she said.

There's a solid Trump base in the district and the incumbent expects to ride those coattails.

"Brat is OK because he'll support Trump," said Nancy Laundry of Manakin-Sabot, just northwest of Richmond. Her husband, Gary, said Spanberger would be hurt among Republicans because of Trump's attacks on intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, which he accuses of undermining his presidency "With all this FBI stuff, the CIA people have taken a big hit,” he said.

But there were telling defections at the Goochland County rally. Richard Ware, a Richmond money manager and self-described mainstream Republican, said, "Brat is way too far right." He was sporting a Spanberger button.

She is a mainstream Democrat in the mold of successful Virginia governors and senators of recent decades. She condemns Trump's build-a-wall border demagogy and family-separation policies, but opposes the left-wing drive to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. She wants to expand Obamacare but doesn't favor moving to a government-run health-insurance program. She talks about the spiraling national debt as a "national security nightmare." She comfortably converses on local issues such as broadband expansion and opioid addiction.

Brat has avoided town forums for 14 months, and detractors say he ignores constituents and listens mainly to those who share his rigid conservatism. Spanberger has raised more campaign money than the incumbent in the last four quarters, with three quarters of it coming from the district. She had to spend a lot to win her primary, leaving Brat with more cash on hand. Democrats predict that money will pour in because Spanberger is such a strong challenger.

Brat attacks her with Republican boilerplate, as a "radical progressive" who wants to advance a left-wing agenda set by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Actually, Spanberger has said that she won't vote for Pelosi for Speaker if Democrats retake the House, and the ex-spy, who was in domestic law-enforcement before starting her intelligence career, is hardly a radical. Brat shows little interest in debating an opponent who seems to know more about global and local issues than he does.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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