When Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., complained months ago that female constituents pressuring him to hold a town hall were “in my grill no matter where I go,” he didn’t know how prescient those words were.
Five women – and one man – are running for the Democratic nomination to challenge the two-term congressman from Central Virginia, next year. The group includes a former CIA operative, a civil attorney and a Marine turned commercial airline pilot.
Women, mostly Democrats, are entering House primary contests in record numbers in Virginia.
Many say they are running to channel their frustration with President Donald Trump. Democratic organizations – long desperate for female candidates – are recruiting them aggressively.
For a Democratic Party riding high on activist fervor, even a long shot district like Brat’s, which has been in Republican hands since the early 1970s, seems within reach.
“When my heart was broken and our dreams were dashed on November 8, I wasn’t sure what lay ahead of us,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Virginia Democrats. That feeling soon gave way to hope, she said. “The whole thing has been very exhilarating and exciting.”
Brat declined an interview for this article but through an aide dismissed the pack of Democrats vying for the chance to take him on as acolytes of the House minority leader.
“Dave is hard at work keeping his promises to pass positive, principled policies that put our country back on the right track,” his chief of staff, Mark Kelly, said in a statement. “Nancy Pelosi desperately wants another vote for her liberal agenda that puts more power in the hands of Washington. Dave looks forward to a debate of ideas about America’s future after the Democrats pick their liberal nominee next June.”
Democrats say their best chance to flip a House seat in Virginia is a district already represented by a woman who has at times distanced herself from Trump. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R, of northern Virginia, has seven Democratic opponents, four of whom are women.
A Democratic woman is considering challenging Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican freshman from Virginia Beach. And two Democratic women are competing to run against Rep. Rob Wittman, whose eastern Virginia district includes parts of Prince William and Fauquier counties.
There’s even a Democratic woman taking on Maryland’s only Republican representative in Congress, Rep. Andy Harris, who hails from the Eastern Shore.
The day after the election, phones started ringing at Emerge America, an organization Andrea Dew Steele created 15 years ago in California, to prepare women to run for office. Today there are programs in 20 states, with 10 more in the works.
“This is a completely different kind of experience to have so many women wanting to run like this,” Steele said. “Normally you have to recruit women heavily and convince them to step up and run.”
Women hold about 20 percent of the 535 seats in Congress; 21 in the Senate and 84 in the House, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.
Research shows women didn’t run for office previously because they were less likely to identify themselves as qualified – a point that has not changed – and they were less likely to receive encouragement or be recruited – a factor that is changing.
Since Election Day, Emily’s List, a national group that endorses women who favor abortion rights, has heard from 16,000 women interested in running for office at all levels of government, compared with the 920 women who reached out during the 2016 cycle.
Emily’s List is talking to more than 130 women who are either running or considering a bid in at least 80 House districts, spokeswoman Alexandra De Luca said.
Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said women are running because many Democrats believe they can take advantage of Trump’s low approval rating, win competitive open seats, or pick off Republicans whose association with Trump could make them vulnerable.
In the past several election cycles, 70 percent of women who have run for office were Democrats, she said.
Yet Lawless cautioned that a record number of women candidates won’t necessarily translate into a record number of women in office.
“The stars have to align pretty perfectly for Democrats,” she said.
Brat’s comments earlier this year encouraged online liberal groups and constituents, some armed with “It’s grilling time” signs, to lash out at him at a rowdy town hall in Blackstone in February. Yet privately, Democrats acknowledge he will be tough to beat.
Buoyed by a reputation as the economics professor who unseated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, Brat entered Congress with a national profile and sailed to reelection two years later by double digits. Trump won his district by 6 points.
The primary race on the Democratic side will force candidates to spend money and resources while Brat keeps up his frequent TV appearances touting the causes of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus.
Abigail Spanberger, 37, has captured early attention with a compelling biography and a profile in Elle Magazine. A former CIA operations officer stationed around the world, she grew up in the district and returned three years ago to work in the private sector.
She wasn’t sure she’d run for office until the day of the health-care vote in the House when she heard from a friend whose daughter suffers from a genetic disorder.
The mother said the repeal of the Affordable Care Act would leave her worried not just about her daughter’s condition but also going bankrupt over medical bills.
Spanberger texted her husband, “I’m definitely running. This is it for me. This is my turning point,” she said.
Eileen Bedell, 44, ran against Brat last year and is the only Democrat with experience seeking public office. An attorney specializing in civil litigation, she grew up in Arlington and Fairfax and has lived in the district for about 20 years. Brat’s support for repeal of the Affordable Care Act and his embrace of Trump make him vulnerable, she said.
“I call him Trump-lite,” she said. “Dave is Trump before Trump was Trump in Virginia.”
Kim Gower, 54, left a consulting career to earn her doctorate from Virginia Commonwealth University and teaches at the University of Mary Washington. A Michigan native, she has lived in the district most of the past decade.
Helen Alli, 52, considers herself a community activist and has served on the Richmond Economic Development Authority. Alli, who has lived in Henrico for 30 years, said she served in the Army for four years and owns a weight-loss and hormone-therapy business.
Janelle Noble, 35, owns a small IT consulting firm. She has lived in Louisa for 1o years and said she would like to see more subsidies for farms. She favors a basic universal income modeled after an experiment in Finland.
The only male candidate in the race, Dan Ward, served two stints in the Marines, including three years with the State Department under Hillary Clinton. He retired in 2014, bought a small farm in Orange and returned to an earlier career flying for a commercial airline.
“Dave Brat represents the extreme right,” he said. “He’s on TV all the time saying some crazy stuff.”
In addition to Brat’s infamous “in my grill” comment, the congressman has raised the ire of Democrats for defending Trump and accuses reporters of perpetuating “fake news.”
Brat’s Twitter and Instagram accounts recently posted a photo of the smiling congressman standing beside a man holding a sign that read “Hillary for U.S. ambassador to Libya.”
The photo, taken at a July 1 gun show in Fredericksburg, was quickly deleted because “it was being misinterpreted. Goal here is informing/sharing, not inflaming. Happy 4th,” according to a tweetBrat posted that evening.
He has positioned himself as a foil to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who is leading a Trump investigation as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who suggested Trump’s son committed treason.
“Mark Warner is seeing smoke everywhere he goes, like he’s in a Cheech and Chong movie,” Brat said on CNN last week. “And Kaine now thinks the son is worse than Benedict Arnold. We’ve gotten a little hysterical.”
Asked how a Democrat who has never held political office could emerge from a six-way nomination fight to topple a telegenic congressman with national notoriety, Democrats noted that stranger things have happened.
“Look, nobody thought Dave Brat was going to upset Eric Cantor,” said Swecker, the state Democrats chairwoman. “That was the upset of the century until now.”