Talk about low-key.
Democrat Jack Trammell’s nomination for Virginia’s 7th District congressional seat was codified not in a convention hall or at the ballot box, but in a hastily arranged conference call Sunday with a handful of district committee members. The 50-year-old Trammell’s nod received little media attention inside Virginia — as of Monday, most outlets were still reporting that the district had no Democratic candidate — and next to none outside the commonwealth.
What a difference a few days makes.
The little-known college professor and author, who was to be the latest sacrificial lamb in Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) political ascension, is now the much-better-known candidate with, some say, a realistic shot at flipping Cantor’s seat to the Democrats.
The transformation is of course due to Republican Dave Brat’s stunning upset of Cantor in Tuesday’s primary. The giant-killer Brat, 49, a Tea Party fave who hammered Cantor on conservative causes, especially immigration, during the primary campaign, has become a rock star pinup for the conservative wing of the GOP in the wake of his astonishing victory.
But Democrats are well aware that beyond the newfound fame, Brat is still a political neophyte with nowhere near the name recognition, clout or money enjoyed by Cantor. That may give Trammell, who, like Brat, is a professor at Randolph-Macon College, an opening. What was supposed to be a sure seat for Republicans with the mighty Cantor on the ballot is suddenly a potentially competitive race between political novices, some Democrats say.
“We have a real chance to pick up this seat,” said one state Democratic Party official who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak about campaign strategy. “With Cantor, you had a powerful incumbent with tons of cash in a solidly Republican district. With Cantor out, we at least have a shot.”
But some analysts aren’t so sure.
“Barring some really major errors by Brat, this race shouldn’t be on the radar as a competitive race in November,” Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, said. “It’s difficult to see Brat losing. And because of the basic fundamentals of the district, it’s unlikely national Democrats will invest much here.”
The more likely scenario, Skelley says, is that Brat will win in November — and then “will have to fend off some serious GOP primary challengers in 2016.”
And given the well-organized Tea Party support Brat received across the central Virginia district in his unlikely win against Cantor, the Republican nominee has an added advantage in an already energized base.
But Democrats may not be willing to give Brat a pass just yet.
Says Democratic Party of Virginia spokeswoman Ashley Bauman: “Getting out the grass-roots base is what this race will be all about.”
It’s not yet clear how much time or money the national party will put into the race, though the party’s move to raise money off of Cantor’s loss — but not for the 7th District campaign — may be a bad omen for Trammell.
To be sure, it will be an uphill battle for Trammell, with or without the support of national Democrats. Presidential contender Mitt Romney won the 7th District with 57 percent of the vote in 2012 and his predecessor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), won with 55 percent four years earlier. What’s more, Cantor had cruised to victory in each of his six reelection bids.
Trammell, who decided to get into the race just last weekend, has given little hint as to what he’s expecting in the way of funding from state and national Democrats, or even if he knows whether support from the party will be forthcoming. His website, hastily put up last week, was still just one page as of Saturday, with a link to contribute to the campaign and a short bio on the candidate. And so far, he has eschewed any major interviews, save for a Q&A with MSNBC.
In that interview, Trammell gave mostly boilerplate responses to questions about fundraising and the overall future of his campaign.
“Right now, I am working with my 7th District committee leaders, as well as the state party, to put as many pieces into place as possible in a reasonable amount of time,” he explained. “We’re focused on building our campaign and reaching out to Virginians to share our message.”
In a statement last week, Democratic Party of Virginia Chairman Dwight Jones sought to capitalize on Cantor’s loss. Yet the only candidate he mentioned by name was Ed Gillespie, the Republican trying to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).
“If ever there was any doubt, tonight’s results prove that extremists have taken over the Virginia Republican Party,” Jones said of Cantor’s loss. “[Cantor] tried to cater to hard-core conservatives, but he failed. Ed Gillespie wants to do this too, and it won’t sit well with Virginians.”
If posts to Trammell’s Facebook page are any indication, though, the populist support that enabled Brat to pull off the biggest upset in years, if not decades, could help him make the race competitive. The page went from next to no “likes” to nearly 17,000 as of Saturday. And the hundreds of comments in support of Trammell were coming from both inside the district and across the country.
“I am ready to work for you,” said one Facebook post under the name Karen Elyse Peters. “I live in the 7th District and pulled the lever against Cantor. … Now I want to pull the lever for you.”
Added a poster using the name Adam Rauen: “Congrats from Chicago. Where do we send the money to?”