Sally Mattson pulls out of a Starbucks at the Westchester Commons shopping complex in central Virginia, her trunk stocked with campaign literature. She’s about to go knock on doors for a Democrat who has a real chance of winning a House seat that’s been under Republican control for nearly five decades.
The last time voters here sent a Democrat to Congress, Richard Nixon was president, and the sprawling retail center that is disappearing in Ms. Mattson’s rear-view mirror didn’t even exist.
As the former nurse heads out on the highway that connects the suburb of Midlothian to downtown Richmond, green fields quickly give way to generously sized homes, and then smaller ones. Mattson turns into a modest neighborhood where she will canvass for Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative who is seeking office for the first time. Ms. Spanberger is challenging Republican Rep. Dave Brat, the tea-party candidate who four years ago unseated House majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary upset that stunned the GOP establishment.
Now Congressman Brat is facing a revolt of his own, from suburbanite women voters. Which is encouraging liberal foot-soldiers like Mattson, as she goes door to door, advocating for a female Democrat in a race ranked “toss-up” by the independent Cook Political Report.
Indeed, if Republicans lose control of the House in November, it will be in large part because of shifts taking place among college-educated, white women in suburban districts like Virginia’s 7th . Once reliably Republican, these women – whom one pollster dubs “the Panera moms,” for the salad-and-soup chain they visit with their kids after soccer games – appear to be moving en masse toward the Democrats.
“Suburban environments are perilous for the Republicans right now,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
A recent survey of the 69 most competitive House districts nationwide – many of which are suburban – shows a Democratic edge propelled by women. The poll, conducted by The Washington Post and George Mason University’s Schar School, finds women voters in those districts backing Democrats over Republicans by 55 to 42 percent. Among white women with college degrees, however, the margin in favor of Democrats is 23 points. In 2016, college-educated white women chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by just six points.
In some districts, the leftward shift is also a reflection of demographic changes. Looking at Virginia’s 7th , which wraps around the outer edge of Richmond in a semi-circle and extends into more rural areas, Mr. Farnsworth describes a first wave of suburbanization, in which Chesterfield County – where Mattson is knocking on doors – became an area of white flight from the city and a Republican enclave. Now it’s undergoing a second wave, of people looking for affordable housing. In addition to the detached, single family homes, townhouses and apartments have sprung up close to the highways.
When a suburban area becomes denser, “it turns less Republican,” says Farnsworth. The change has affected the political leanings of the district as a whole. In 2012, the 7th district, as currently configured, backed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama by 11 percentage points. Four years later, Donald Trump won the district by just 6 points (and lost Virginia as a whole, the only state in the South he didn’t capture). In 2017, GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie won the district by 4 points – but lost Chesterfield County to now-Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
The 2017 election in Virginia was notable as the first statewide test of voter sentiment since Mr. Trump was elected – and Democrats not only elected a governor, but knocked 15 Republicans from the state House of Delegates, missing a takeover by a hair’s breadth.
Anger after 2016
Demographic changes played a role in that election – but so did voter anger in the wake of 2016. Mattson can attest to that. Before Trump entered the Oval Office, she had sat on the political sidelines. Like many Americans, she says she couldn’t name her representative in the state house or what voting district she lived in. But after Trump’s election, she joined an activist group, the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, and she’s been volunteering for Democratic campaigns ever since.
“Suburban women are determined. They’re angry. They, like me, wish that they had gotten involved earlier,” says Mattson. The morning after Trump won, “I woke up and thought, ‘I’m not waking up again the day after an election and being ashamed that I didn’t do enough.’ ”
Quentin Kidd, a political scientist and pollster at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, credits the liberal women’s group for turning Chesterfield County blue in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election. “That group popped up literally the first week after the 2016 election,” he says. “And they never went away.”
The Spanberger campaign is counting on those women to deliver her to victory in a district the Democrats have targeted for flipping in their nationwide “Red-to-Blue” campaign. “The real backbone of our campaign is the strength of our volunteers, the majority of whom are women,” said Spanberger in an interview last month.
The candidate could consider herself one of them. Before 2016, Spanberger – who has worked as a federal law enforcement officer for the US Postal Inspection Service and for the CIA overseas – was only involved in advocacy as a mom against gun violence and a volunteer at polling places. But after the election, she found herself increasingly disturbed that everything from health care to protecting children in schools was becoming “hyper-partisan.” She entered the “Emerge” program that trains women Democrats to run for public office.
In her ads and on the campaign trail, she presents herself as a problem-solver who wants to restore civil discourse and work across the aisle. The No. 1 issue she hears about from voters is health care, and she’s put that front and center with an ad about a Virginia mom who is switching her vote from Brat to Spanberger over concerns about coverage for pre-existing conditions.
No walk in the park
Bob Holsworth, a veteran political observer in Richmond, cautions that while Spanberger has a “pretty impressive” resume, “this is no walk in the park for Democrats.” About a third of the district does not fit the suburban mold, but is more rural – and Trump won handily in those areas.
That much was clear at the Chesterfield County Fair last month, when a steady stream of passersby at the Republican booth expressed their support for Congressman Brat and President Trump.
“I’m for conservative values and small government,” says Donna Waters, wearing a Dave Brat sticker. Keeping the House under Republican control is “very important” says this mom who works for the state police. She points to the strong economy as Trump’s doing, but adds that the “horrible liberal media” and Democrats “will never give him credit for it.”
She sounds much like the congressman himself, an economics professor turned renegade politician. A member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, Brat touts his tough stance against the GOP establishment, illegal immigration, and the Affordable Care Act. And he repeatedly underscores the strong economy and the Republican tax cuts.
“Small businesses just couldn’t be happier,” he said in an interview before House members left Washington for the final stretch of the campaign trail. As he puts it, he’s campaigning on “results instead of resistance.” It’s a theme being voiced in close races across the country.
While many of Spanberger’s supporters may be angry at the president, she uses Trump’s name judiciously as she tries to win over moderates, independents, and some crossover Republicans. Her ads have a calm tone to them.
Still, she sounded much sharper at a recent debate as she fought off Brat’s attacks that she is for sanctuary cities and a $32 trillion “government takeover” of health care.
“A vote for my opponent will be a vote for the Nancy Pelosi liberal agenda,” he said. “Do you want to turn Richmond into San Francisco?” Spanberger, like several Democrats trying to win in swing districts, has pledged not to vote for Congresswoman Pelosi as Democratic leader “under any circumstances.”
She’s also refusing corporate PAC money – not that she needs it. Donations have been pouring into her campaign, which raised nearly $3.6 million in the last quarter, three times what Brat raised, and more than he spent on his last two campaigns combined. Outside money has been flowing for both candidates, whose competing ads are saturating the airwaves.
‘The women are in my grill’
Democrats can take back the House without this seat, says Farnsworth. But if they succeed in wresting it back, it will likely indicate a big win for them on election night. And unquestionably, he says, women voters will have a lot to do with it.
In the interview, Brat acknowledged it has been “hard to counter” the energy of the women opposing him. Earlier in the campaign he made an ill-fated remark when he complained about rowdy, disruptive town halls, saying that “the women are in my grill, no matter where I go.” He later stopped doing town halls altogether, opting instead for smaller gatherings with constituents.
That irritates Jane Robison, a retiree having coffee at the Midlothian Starbucks: “He’s excluding people who aren’t in his tribe.”
But what about his point that the town halls had become counterproductive yelling fests?
Ms. Robison has an answer to that. “If you make the weather, don’t cry when it rains.”