Randolph-Macon College professors debate their congressional platforms before general election

Chris Suarez
Staff Writer

The “Political Center of the Universe” seemed to form last Tuesday night just 20 miles north of VCU.

Reporters, camera crews, political supporters and curious residents surrounded Randolph-Macon College to watch the only scheduled debate between 7th District congressional candidates Dave Brat and Jack Trammell, two of the college’s professors.

In June, Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary. It was then that residents and students in Ashland, the town surrounding R-MC, learned that two of their town’s beloved professors would be running against each other.

Virginia’s 7th District congressional candidates Dave Brat (left) and Jack Trammell (right), both professors at Randolph-Macon College, debated one another on campus last Tuesday. The debate fell only a week before the Nov. 4 general election tomorrow. PHOTO BY Brooke Marsh

It didn’t take long after that for national and international media outlets to swoop in and make the situation a narrative about competing professors, small district politics and the Tea Party’s effect on the GOP.

“There definitely has been a change in dynamic around campus,” said R-MC senior Kailee Cross. “We’ve had the Colbert Report and Daily Show feature us, it was a big thing for our school to be on both those shows.”

In addition to being featured on two of the highest-rated politically themed television programs popular with younger, college-aged audiences, the college and town has experienced large media attention and has become directly involved in the election.

“There’s references to it all the time on campus, ‘I’m Brat’ or ‘I’m Trammell’,” Cross said. While some students have taken sides and actively campaigned for either candidate, some students have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #Brammell to show solidarity with both of the professors.

On Tuesday night, the election’s only scheduled debate was held. During it, both candidates answered questions asked by Randolph-Macon President Robert Lindgren and NBC 12 anchor Heather Sullivan.

During the debate, questions regarding national issues such as Ebola, minimum-wage, immigration reform, the Affordable Care Act and the conflict against ISIS were discussed between the candidates. Given only two minutes to respond to questions, both Trammell and Brat outlined their campaign platforms and goals if elected.

Preliminary debate analysis has so far shown favor for Trammell. Many of Brat’s statements and responses were repetitive, with Brat mentioning “Obamacare” more than 13 times and repeating his campaign’s theme: “We need to send an economist to Washington.”

Regarding the Affordable Care Act, Brat said the legislation has failed thus far because “the goal was to reduce the number of people who were uninsured, and we have added eight to 11 million people.”

Responding to claims that the ACA has caused more harm than good, Trammell said reform is still necessary.

“Do we need to fix things? Of course we do. We need to help small businesses out. But we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water,” he said.

Criticism of Trammell’s performance has surfaced as well. Many of his responses fell far shorter than two-minutes and offered no precise answers, only short, personal vignettes portraying himself as a simple sociology professor living on a small farm in Louisa County.

Regarding immigration reform, Brat said he was wholly opposed to it, calling reform “code language” for amnesty. Brat said fiscal responsibility and moral responsibility require direct intervention in countries that are experiencing mass emigration of its citizens.

Trammell said he was in support of Deferred Action and comprehensive immigration reform, saying he believes immigration should be considered one of America’s greatest aspects.

Many analysts believe immigration reform is the issue that cost Cantor the primary.

Outside of the Blackwell Auditorium, Trammell supporters showed up hours before the debate waving Trammell campaign signs and routinely breaking into chants of his name. Among those supporters were four VCU students volunteering for the Trammell campaign.

“I think we’ve seen a very pro-partisan approach to politics in the House of Representatives,” said Gregory Nowotarski, a VCU senior who attended the debate. “We think Trammell is pushing for bipartisanship with both parties and has ideas to forward the United States and not put up a wall.”

Despite wide predictions that Brat will win the election based on decades-long election results and what R-MC political science professor Robert Meagher called “a gerrymandered” district, Trammell supporters were most visible and vocal on campus in the hours leading up to Tuesday night’s debate. Meagher said Brat could win, but there is opportunity for a surprise result.

Midterm elections for the 7th District, Mark Warner’s Senate seat and other local and state offices will be held on Nov. 4.

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