Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), whose 2014 primary defeat of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor propelled him to nationwide fame, visited a county jail on Wednesday to speak with incarcerated addicts. And he found a strange way to relate to their struggles.
In audio captured by Ben Paviour, a reporter for Richmond’s NPR station, Brat is heard commiserating with an inmate in the Chesterfield County Jail’s addiction support group. The woman relayed her fears about life after release from the system, and the Republican lawmaker responded by telling her that his life is also difficult—because of the negative attack ads he faces.
“You think you’re having a hard time—I’ve got $5 million worth of negative ads coming at me,” Brat is heard saying. “How do you think I’m feeling? Nothing’s easy. For anybody.”
“You think I’m a congressman, ‘Oh, life’s easy, this guy’s off having steaks every day.’” he continued. “Baloney. I’ve got a daughter, she’s got to deal with that crap on TV every day.”
“So it’s tough,” Brat went on. “No one out there’s got some easy life. Right?”
The congressman did eventually acknowledge that the men and women he was speaking with face deeper adversity than political television ads.
“And you’ve got it harder,” Brat later said. “I’m not dismissing that. You’ve got some fierce, real anxiety with coming up with a job or whatever. And what you’ve got to find is a support system.”
Brat’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
But, Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard, who accompanied Brat on his visit, expressed frustration in a Facebook post about the way in which the comments and the overall visit were being portrayed.
“It is a shame that what was supposed to be a visit to focus on finding solutions to an issue that is killing tens of thousands of Americans a year has turned into a political matter," Leonard wrote. "The real losers here will be the people struggling with addiction inside our jail and across this Nation, now who become an after thought and a forgotten part of the story. Again they take a back seat as a large part of our population would rather focus on negative campaign rhetoric than critically needed solutions and answers to this devastating crisis.”
And shortly after the meeting, the same Richmond NPR reporter caught up with the inmate who had the exchange with Brat. “It was like a sense of relief, like I’m not alone,” the 28-year-old woman said. “Somebody this important, this big, is got the same things going on, like being overwhelmed. It made me feel like at ease.”
Another inmate however, told NPR that the congressman’s comments struck the wrong chord. “I think [Brat] had good intentions. But the struggles I've had to deal with throughout my life don't compare to slander or to what people may say about me to the public.”
Virginia's 7th congressional district has had Republican representation since the early 1970s but Brat now finds himself in a toss-up race against Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative, who—like many Democrats in the 2018 cycle—is outraising her opponent.
She called Brat's remarks “shameful” in a Twitter post.
As Virginia has trended more blue in recent years, this central Virginia district voted for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 12 points but then only backed President Trump in 2016 by 6 points. In 2017, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam romped to a nearly nine-point statewide win.
Trump tweeted on Thursday that Brat has his full endorsement in the race.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comment from Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard and the inmates who met with Brat.