‘He’s way too conservative’: Freedom Caucus members on the hot seat
SPOTSYLVANIA, Va. — Democrat Abigail Spanberger stood on a wooden bench at a vineyard in central Virginia and railed against “the prioritization of ideology over informed decision-making” — a pointed jab at her opponent, House Freedom Caucus member Dave Brat.
Spanberger, a 38-year-old former CIA operative, has barnstormed this traditionally Republican stronghold accusing Brat of putting the Freedom Caucus’ intransigent conservative politics over the needs of constituents, and pitching herself as a pragmatist who could represent them better.
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“We need people in Washington who are committed to creating legislation that’s actually impacting communities rather than guided by Republican ideology,” Spanberger said in an interview.
Brat is one of two high-profile Freedom Caucus members at risk of losing their seats this fall to a potential Democratic wave. It’s an unfamiliar feeling for members of the hard-line group, whose typically comfortable electoral positions have emboldened them to push a far-right platform.
Brat and Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania were elected in the throes of the tea party backlash against then-President Barack Obama — Brat staged a shocking upset against Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican leader — but are now fighting to survive a very different kind of backlash against the current president. Their politics — and shifting makeup of their districts spurred by redistricting — are providing ample fodder for Democratic challengers.
Perry’s Democratic opponent George Scott has held up the incumbent’s push to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as proof that he’s an extremist unfit to represent the district. Scott, a pastor political novice who wants to join the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus,” said Perry’s support for an impeachment bid “that was repudiated by Speaker [Paul] Ryan says a lot [about] how far that particular group is swinging.”
“We can’t just continue the path of demonizing the opposition,” he said. “We have to make progress in a bipartisan way.”
Brat’s seat has been in GOP hands since the 1970s. But the Cook Political Report has downgraded the seat from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican” to, now, “toss-up.” Spanberger has outraised Brat every quarter since entering the race. And some senior House and Virginia Republicans worry Brat is in jeopardy.
“I think everybody should be concerned about the race,” said former Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck, who predicted Brat will survive if he runs a good campaign. “He needs to run as hard as he can.”
The campaigns of Perry and Brat did not answer multiple requests for comment or an interview. Brat texted that “I don’t like being part of stories with a false premise from the start,” though he declined to elaborate.
But it’s clear the two men have adopted very different campaign strategies.
Brat, a former economics professor who’s railed against leadership in the past, has softened his tone lately, mending his previously fraught relationship with senior Republicans in a way that’s caught their attention. One top Republican was shocked when Brat broke with Freedom Caucus members and voted to allow consideration of a massive spending bill on the House floor. (He ultimately opposed the measure.)
Brat has also steered clear of the Freedom Caucus leadership’s push to impeach Rosenstein, focusing instead on legislation he’s passed that affects his district. The congressman frequently talks up the GOP’s tax reform package as well as his work on opioids and human trafficking.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) have returned the favor for Brat by helping him raise money. And the National Republican Congressional Committee, which rarely helps conservatives who fail to pay their “dues” to the election arm, is helping Brat strategize and analyze election data.
“We stand squarely behind Dave Brat,” NRCC spokesman Matt Gorman said, declining to say whether Brat is paying his annual fees to the campaign arm.
Perry, in his race, has stuck with his usual fiery rhetoric, even though his seat is now on Democrats’ radar. GOP leadership sources were surprised when he refused to back a farm bill because he believed it defies conservative values, despite the benefits to his district. And they say he’s made little attempt to shroud his scorn for leadership’s immigration plans or the idea of supporting Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, known as a center-right dealmaker, for speaker.
Insiders chalk up the difference in their approaches to the circumstances of their races. Brat faces a steeper challenge than Perry, whose home turf still leans heavily Republican. Due to 2016 redistricting by the courts, Brat lost conservative Hanover County and gained more suburban neighborhoods outside Richmond.
Due in part to the change, Trump carried Brat’s district by a bare majority in 2016, compared to the 56 percent Mitt Romney garnered four years earlier, according to Cook.