On social media, they’re calling it the “Thrashin’ at Ashland.”
When Randolph-Macon College professor Dave Brat trounced House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the obscure academic turned the race in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District into one of the most compelling of the season.
Tuesday’s victory catapulted Randolph-Macon College, a sleepy liberal arts college 15 miles north of Richmond, into the political spotlight, now that two of its own are running for Congress.
Brat now faces Democrat Jack Trammell, a Randolph-Macon sociology professor who runs the school’s honors program and Disability Support Services.
Neither of the candidates, who are campus acquaintances, have held elected office. Their primary campaigns, according to students familiar with both men, were quiet affairs kept out of the classroom and off campus.
Matthew Wein, a recent graduate who took classes with both professors, said Brat “separated campaigning from teaching” his economics and ethics courses.
“I was shocked when he won, because Cantor, he’s a big dog in Congress,” Wein said. “But [Brat] seemed confident the whole time. Maybe he felt like he had nothing to lose by running.”
While he’d spend time in class talking about the importance of free markets and the national debt, Brat, 49, would only bring up the race if asked, Wein said. (Another student, John Rackey, a senior majoring in music and political science, recalls seeing Brat make campaign phone calls in between classes.)
“He didn’t want to get students involved in campaigning, and was very professional about keeping his job and his campaign separate,” Wein said, adding that he has “never” heard Brat speak about Cantor.
Before his victory turned the Ashland, Virginia, campus upside down, Brat was just an inspiring economics professor known for being a straight-shooter, who wouldn’t put trick questions on his tests, and insisted in his syllabi that his students adhere to a “business casual” dress code.
“He wanted to prepare us for the business world,” Wein said. “I wore flip-flops to class one time, and he assigned me a one-page paper as a joke.”
While Brat’s win made headlines, the real surprise came the next day, when many of the school’s 1,300 students learned that Trammell, 50, the well-regarded sociology professor known for bringing his dog to campus and playing pickup basketball with students (“He’s a great 3-point shooter,” Wein recalls) would be his Democratic opponent.
“We did a 180 when Dr. Brat won, then all of a sudden its two Randolph-Macon professors running for Congress in the seventh district,” said Sarah Maxwell, a senior majoring in political science and economics.
But following Cantor’s high-profile flameout, the race needs little help attracting attention. On a campus with only 150 students in a given summer, the reporters and camera crews are hard to ignore.
Their presence, and the spotlight that comes with it, has already transformed the campus.
John Rackey, a senior majoring in music and political science and the president of the college’s Young Democrats, watched social media “explode” with stories about the school and race after Brat’s win, and hopes to find a more politically engaged student-body in the fall.
“Almost overnight, the College Republicans have gotten a lot more organized than they have been in previous years and I’m predicting our numbers will grow as well,” he said.
“Whether people are involved or not actively, more people will know more about what’s going on.”
Most years, the most exciting time on campus is the week leading up to the annual football game against Hampden-Sydney, where students decorate a beat-up car in Hampden-Sydney colors, and pay $5 to take a turn smashing it in with a sledgehammer.
But now, with college president Robert Lindgren’s desire to hold an official debate on campus, game week might be the second-most important event at Randolph-Macon this fall.
“This race is definitely more exciting than the car bash,” student Maxwell said.