Prof vs. prof: Can a Democrat possibly carry Eric Cantor’s district?

Eric Cantor. Photo: James Berglie/ZUMAPRESS. Eric Cantor. Photo: James Berglie/ZUMAPRESS.

The completely unexpected primary loss of congressional ambition machine Eric Cantor has created a deliciously unexpected situation: an actual competitive race in the ex-House Majority Leader’s Richmond-based 7th district.

Now don’t get us wrong; the chances of a Democrat winning Cantor’s old district are slight indeed. The 7th, like all Virginia districts, has been so expertly gerrymandered that it is basically pre-programmed to elect a certain type of candidate—in this case, a Republican. In fact, it’s been reported that Cantor’s brain trust actually pushed to absorb conservative New Kent County into the district during the 2010 redistricting, thus laying the groundwork for his ignominious defeat (Cantor lost New Kent to his primary opponent, David Brat, by 500 votes, receiving only 37 percent of the total).

But by tossing Cantor out of office, his district’s voters (Republican and Democrat alike) engineered the most intriguing Old Dominion race of 2014. Instead of yet another boring coronation, we now have a completely unpredictable battle between two college professors who not only teach at the same small school (Randolph-Macon College), but who are both well-liked local oddballs with idiosyncratic personalities and slightly inscrutable political philosophies.

David Brat, the new Republican standard-bearer, is the more traditional of the two candidates. And by traditional, we mean that he fits the recently ascendant profile of the Tea Party Republican: an economics professor and Ayn Rand acolyte who campaigned on an explicitly anti-immigrant and anti-Washington platform. Brat is also a highly devout Christian who called his primary win “a miracle from God,” and declared during his victory speech (with more than a little self-aggrandizement) “I wish to restore America to its Judeo-Christian roots… God acted through people on my behalf.”

The Democratic candidate, Jack Trammell, is a bit harder to pin down. A history scholar and father of seven (three biological, four through his current marriage), Trammell is an oft-published writer of both non-fiction (The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of The Old Dominion) and romantic fiction (Sarah’s Last Secret), as well as the occasional commentary—including for this paper. He also brews his own IPA, practices animal husbandry on the small farm he owns with his wife, and once played in a synth-rock band called Syd Sustain. In addition, he’s been the director of disability services at Randolph-Macon since 2001, and is known for encouraging able-bodied people to navigate the campus using a wheelchair.

Could such a highly unique individual, with little or no Democratic party support, have ever knocked off Eric Cantor? Probably not. But does he have a chance against a relatively unknown (and unpredictable) quantity like Brat? Absolutely, even in a solid red district. Especially when his opponent has stumbled out of the gate, refused to answer questions from the press, and recently negated the entire premise of his campaign by replacing his gaffe-prone campaign manager with a party apparatchik previously employed by Eric Cantor.

Factor into the race the recent Republican Party machinations to seize control of the state senate, and Governor Terry McAuliffe’s bold countermove to employ his line-item veto to strip Republican objections to Medicaid expansion from Virginia’s budget, and you have all the makings of a fluid, unpredictable contest—a once-common specimen that is vanishingly rare in politics today.

So bring on the popcorn—this promises to be a long, exciting ride indeed.