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Va. Students Abuzz As Star Professors Become Political Rivals

Randolph-Macon College economics professor Dave Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Tuesday's primary.
Jay Paul
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Randolph-Macon College economics professor Dave Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Tuesday's primary.

The upset of Rep. Eric Cantor by Dave Brat in Tuesday's primary rocked Washington. It also left its stamp on a tiny college in Ashland, Va. Brat is a professor at Randolph-Macon College — as is his next opponent, Democrat Jack Trammell.

Randolph-Macon is a small liberal arts college of about 1,300 students, founded by the United Methodist Church in 1830. The chances that two of its professors would be opponents in a congressional campaign were, before this week, microscopic. But on Monday, associate sociology professor Jack Trammell became the Democrats' candidate for the 7th District seat, a job no one else wanted to take on. The next day, Brat, a professor of economics at the college, staged his upset.

Suddenly, Randolph-Macon College has become the epicenter of congressional politics in Virginia. College Provost William Franz says both professors are well-regarded by their colleagues and students.

"They're regular guys. They're parents; they're husbands; they're professors," he says. "They're passionate with their students; they're passionate about their ideas. They recreate with us; they teach with us; they do research with us. They're part of our community."

The school's students are mostly scattered for the summer, but a few were around to talk to the many reporters who gathered Wednesday, curious about the newly famous institution just north of Richmond. Angelina Sportelli, an economics major from nearby Mechanicsville, has had Brat as a professor, and she voted for him Tuesday.

"He is very enthusiastic and really fun," she says, "and he makes you think and gets you going, and I wouldn't recommend another professor as highly as him."

Sportelli thinks Brat would be great in Congress if he brings the determination he's shown in the classroom to the Capitol.

"It shows in class, too ... if he feels passionate about something, he's going to put his foot down and he's gonna stand for his values. He's not going to really compromise much," she says.

Mikhaila Calice, a political science and international studies major from Chicago, has also taken classes from Brat.

"We had his class at 8 a.m. in the morning, and I never fell asleep, which is impressive. ... Some classes are really hard to stay awake in, and he really does a lot to make his classes engaging, fun, and he wants you to learn," she says.

Derek Dittmar is a communications major from Raleigh, N.C. Dittmar is visually impaired and says Trammell, who directs the school's disability program, is the reason he chose to attend Randolph-Macon.

"I actually think if he was a member of Congress, it would be a fantastic thing for this country. He definitely has the intelligence ... and he has an honest, God-given drive and push to make anything that he comes in contact with better," says Dittmar. "So I think he's exactly the type person we need in Congress."

While campus is quiet, students have been buzzing about the news that two of their favorite professors are facing off for Congress.

"Facebook is crazy. There are more Facebook posts about these two professors than I think there have been about the president," Calice says. Dittmar jokes, "It's tied right up there with the new Orange Is the New Black series."

Sportelli says no one seems too worried the school is going to become divided over the professors/candidates with widely divergent views.

"Some people are conservative or not, but overall ... I think we're nice about it," she says. "I don't think there's been any brawls or anything. But we're all politically aware, and I can't wait to see campus in the fall — what's going to happen."

School officials say they will likely offer to sponsor a debate between the two professors in the coming months. It's not yet been worked out if both will continue their teaching duties while they campaign for Congress.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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