From left: U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger and Libertarian Joe Walton.

Editor’s note: Whether Democrats can retake the House of Representatives is the big storyline of this fall’s midterm election cycle. Four competitive Virginia House races for seats currently held by Republicans, profiled this week in a series in the Mercury, could play a key role come Election Day. 

In a 2014 primary race against an opponent who raised more than $5 million, Dave Brat did what no one thought he could: He beat Eric Cantor, the powerful Republican House Majority Leader.

All Brat did was zero in on the 7th District’s main complaint: that Cantor was too busy in Washington, D.C., to listen to his constituents.

Now, in his race to win a third term, Brat is facing the same criticism.

“Brat’s problem is that he’s been as aloof as they can get,” said Quentin Kidd, Director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “He’s been as aloof as Cantor ever was.”

Brat is running against Democratic newcomer Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer, and Libertarian Joe Walton, who previously served as chairman of the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors.

The 7th District is a race that could easily be won by the incumbent, Kidd said. Fifty-one percent of the district’s voters picked Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and Brat won the district that year with 57 percent of the vote.

The district has strong Republican voters, though Democrats’ popularity has increased some in recent elections. If Brat loses, Kidd said, it’s likely because there are voters who don’t hear much from him.

Walton, a former Powhatan County Board of Supervisors chairman, thinks that gives him an opportunity to win the district by catching voters in the middle.

“Spanberger is too far left and Rep. Brat isn’t a representative,” he said.

Brat has earned a reputation of being unresponsive and dismissive, especially toward women who were “in my grill no matter where I go.

Brat’s campaign didn’t respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

Virginia’s 7th Congressional District stretches from the suburbs of Richmond north to Culpeper.

On social media accounts, he’s highlighted his work in Congress: More than 350 events held across the district and more than 100,000 constituent questions answered, one tweet says.

In August, Brat attended 73 community events across all 10 counties of the 7th District.

A year ago, Spanberger said she sat front-row at a town hall Brat held in Chesterfield County.

She was unimpressed with how adversarial he seemed with people who disagreed with him, she said.

“I recognize that sometimes it’s difficult to have conversations with someone who doesn’t agree with you and I recognize that it’s challenging to have people who are emotional about issues,” she said in an interview. “But I think it’s fundamentally a requirement of the job to listen to those people.”

Spanberger has never run or held office before. She used to be an agent in the U.S. Postal Service Inspection Service, the postal service’s law enforcement agency. Later she was an agent in the Central Intelligence Agency and collected information for counter-terrorism efforts.

Last month, Spanberger found that a conservative political action committee obtained security clearance paperwork she filed while working for the Postal Service. The documents were unredacted and included medical information and her Social Security number. The Postal Service has said the documents were released in error.

The release confirmed her brief stint as a teacher at an Alexandria Islamic high school that had an alumnus join al-Qaida and quickly became the subject of attack ads.

“I am proud of my background, my service and the work I did to keep this country safe, and it is outrageous that the Congressional Leadership Fund, Speaker (Paul) Ryan, and Rep. Brat are so afraid of losing an election that they would resort to these disgraceful and likely illegal tactics to try and find or create controversy — where there is none — regarding my personal background,” she said in a statement.

Brat hasn’t issued a statement in response to the release of Spanberger’s records.

He has continued to hold small community events, many by invitation only, around his district, and sent an email out to supporters titled “Questions for Abigail.”

The list included questions like, “Will you impeach President Trump?” and “Will you send a better tone to Washington, D.C., by asking your supporters to stop swearing at pastors during town halls?”

Spanberger didn’t respond to the email. Unlike other Democratic nominees around the state, Spanberger’s campaign hasn’t focused much on President Donald Trump.

“Overall my priority would be to actually make forward movement on legislation that we could actually have pass the House, the Senate and signed off on,” she said. 

Health care costs have been the most repeated issue among constituents Spanberger has talked to, she said. She supports Medicare X, Tim Kaine’s proposal to expand health care starting in 2020.

For his part, Brat has stayed true to his Tea Party roots when it comes to policy. He supports defunding the Affordable Care Act, wants to protect Second Amendment rights, is pro-life and wants stronger national borders — though he did introduce legislation to keep immigrant families together while in asylum.

And as a former economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, he also has an interest in controlling the national debt.

Like most Republicans, Brat has highlighted federal tax changes as a major accomplishment.

Walton shares some of Brat’s concerns about national debt and the federal government’s ability to deliver on some entitlement programs, like Social Security. He didn’t support the federal tax reform because of its impact on the national debt, his website said.

Walton is pro-choice, wants to protect Second Amendment rights and wants to do more to protect voters from discrimination.

He did weigh in on Brat’s questions to Spanberger in a separate email to supporters. He answered some with, “This is an intemperate question and should be beneath an incumbent’s dignity to ask.”