Inside homes in a Chesterfield County neighborhood decorated for Halloween, single moms, retirees and truck drivers were going about their Sunday routines, many watching football or cooking a family meal. One doormat said “Come in, we’re dead.”
Outside, Lisa Turner walked with a map of the neighborhood southwest of Bon Air, and holding a list of certain voters Democrats are trying to persuade, including people who have voted in Republican primaries.
She knocked on doors and leaned in to listen for movement. She walked up to a front door with her bag full of literature for Democratic candidate Abigail Spanberger, who is challenging two-term Republican Rep. Dave Brat in the 7th District on Nov. 6.
The 7th, which extends south from Culpeper to include areas west of Fredericksburg and Richmond, is one of Virginia’s most hotly contested races.
The parts of western Chesterfield County that are in the 7th are critical to Brat and Spanberger in a district that Republicans have held since 1971. Chesterfield is important to both parties, said Garren Shipley, communications director for the Republican National Committee in Virginia.
“That’s why robbers rob banks—because that’s where they keep the money,” he said. “You have to go where the votes are.”
Kerry Jackson was outside when Turner asked if she was leaning toward Brat or Spanberger.
“I actually met her,” Jackson said of Spanberger. ”She came to my daughter’s high school, so we’re big fans.” She said her concerns as a mother of 14- and 4-year-old daughters were education and health care.
Past results indicate Brat will do well in the eight counties in the district that don’t touch the city of Richmond: Culpeper, Orange, Nottoway, Amelia, Goochland, Powhatan, Louisa and Spotsylvania. But the majority of the district’s votes will come from Henrico and traditionally Republican Chesterfield, which a Democrat carried for governor last year for the first time since 1961.
Brat, whose campaign declined to allow a reporter to join on a door canvas for this story, carried all 10 counties in the 7th District against Democrat Eileen Bedell in 2016. Of the 379,209 votes cast in that election, 234,315 were cast in Chesterfield and Henrico.
Democrat Ralph Northam received 44,029 votes last year in the Chesterfield precincts that are in the 7th, compared to 41,216 for Republican Ed Gillespie, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. The tally was 47,477 votes for Northam and 36,872 for Gillespie in the Henrico precincts that are in the 7th.
Voter registration in Chesterfield this year is double what it was in 2014, the year of the last congressional midterm election, according to the registrar’s office, and about 6,000 people have voted absentee, already more than the 4,554 absentee voters in the 2014 midterm.
The folks enjoying a lazy Sunday in suburban Chesterfield could decide the race.
A changing Chesterfield
Phyllis Tessieri, a retired seminary professor, moved to Chesterfield in 1952 as a child when her father founded a Baptist church. She recalls a different Chesterfield in the past in which white families feared blacks entering their schools.
Republicans have dominated local offices until last year, when a new group called Liberal Women of Chesterfield County flipped the commissioner of the revenue post from R to D. That group formed in response to the 2016 presidential election outcome.
President Donald Trump carried Chesterfield by about 4,000 votes in 2016. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had carried Chesterfield by more than 13,000 votes. In the 2014 U.S. Senate race, Republican Ed Gillespie had topped Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in Chesterfield by more than 8,800 votes.
“The Republicans have been absolutely stunned to find out that the population has changed,” Tessieri said. “And you have a lot of people in Chesterfield now who didn’t always live here.”
State Sen. Amanda Chase, a Republican and Brat ally who has lived in Chesterfield since she was a child, said she’s aware of the recent increase in active Democrats in the county.
But less visible, she said, are conservative women who are raising kids and are active online.
“We are in the process now of flexing our muscle as the conservative Chesterfield women and I think that people are going to be surprised,” she said. “I think that conservative women have realized that they can’t take things for granted. You’re going to see conservative women come out of the woodwork to counter what they feel has taken place in the last election.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who heads his party’s Nov. 6 ticket, says “Chesterfield has been a tough place for Dems.”
Speaking at a recent Saturday morning canvas launch in Chesterfield, Kaine said he’s used Chesterfield as a bellwether of statewide races for years because voting results come in early in the large county. If a Democrat was within 15,000 votes of a Republican in Chesterfield, Kaine said, the Democrat had a shot at winning statewide.
Northam’s win in the county last year, Kaine said, was like the a break in a curse.
Volunteers work on ground
Spanberger had raised nearly $6 million as of Oct. 17, the most of any congressional candidate in Virginia for this election and more than twice the $2.7 million Brat has raised for this campaign, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The numbers do not include large expenditures for each candidate from outside groups.
Turner, the Spanberger canvasser visiting houses in Chesterfield and Henrico, told voters about Spanberger’s career as a CIA officer. If elected, Spanberger would help Congress keep an eye on Trump, she said. Turner informed a single mother worried about the local economy that Spanberger is a mother of three young girls and started a Girl Scout troop.
She also made pitches for Kaine and Scott Miles, the Democrat in the race for commonwealth’s attorney against Republican John Childrey, although that race is not listed on the ballot by party. That seat is open for the first time in three decades following the retirement of Billy Davenport.
Both candidates live and have their headquarters in Henrico. On Thursday evening, 63 volunteers had signed in to phone bank at Spanberger headquarters, which has a wall mural depicting a blue wave with white tips about to crash over the U.S. Capitol, and five more were working in a lower level of the rented office suite. At Brat headquarters, six people were making calls.
Angelica Tsvetkov of Henrico, a political science student at Virginia Commonwealth University, said her political views were influenced by the experience of her parents, who immigrated from Russia for a better life.
“I believe in the values that Dave Brat puts out there of the rule of law, Judeo Christian values, the free market,” she said. She’s been volunteering for eight months, doing hours of phone calls and also going out to knock doors.
On the office walls hung a huge U.S. flag and a quote from Ronald Reagan. A quote alongside a photo of Margaret Thatcher from her reads: “In order to be considered truly free, countries must also have a deep love of liberty and an abiding respect for the rule of law.”
Mark Ludovico, a retired Navy commander, and his son Daniel, 16, are a father-son phone bank team. Their family hosted Brat for an event in their home just before he upset Eric Cantor in a primary four years ago and have been supporters since.
“Dave hasn’t changed. He’s still a free market guy. He’s still a rule of law guy. It’s a tight election, which is why we’re more involved this cycle than ever before,” Mark Ludovico said.