At the time, it was Cory Hebert’s dream job. The rising Republican operative, a former field director for Florida Congressman Allen West, had landed a position as then-candidate Dave Brat’s communications director, and he was excited to move to Richmond to work against the powerful House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“I was fairly conservative,” Hebert admits. He liked Brat’s economic policies, and said his message about Cantor being out of touch resonated with him. Now, he’s a staunch supporter of another insurgent challenger: Democratic-candidate Abigail Spanberger.
“She’s spent so much of her life serving our country,” he says. “That’s what we need, someone who is going to be a public servant.”
His shift, from the right-wing of the Tea Party to support for democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, came in response to the Trump-era and what he calls a hard tilt to the right for his former party.
I was appalled … with what I was being tasked to do
He saw the new policies develop first-hand, as then-candidate Brat increasingly hardened on immigration. After the economics professor began appearing on the “Laura Ingraham Show,” where the two described immigration as a threat to America, it emerged as a wedge issue to use against Cantor. But Hebert says the crucial moment came when he had to write a strong anti-immigration statement with Julia Hahn, a new press secretary and former producer for Ingraham.
“I was appalled, for lack of a better word, with what I was being tasked to do,” Hebert says.
The press secretary, Hahn, was an immigration hardliner who would go on to Breitbart. There she’d write scare stories about “white genocide,” or a future where white Americans are a minority, before following her mentor Steve Bannon into the White House. Looking back, it was a key moment in the fusing of xenophobia and white nationalism with the modern Republican party, according to Rolling Stone political writer Reid Cherlin on an episode of Ira Glass’s “This American Life.”
This American Life producer Zoe Chace zeroed in on one speech in the episode; the same speech that Hebert was appalled to co-write. “Specifically, it was the speech [Brat] gave in Richmond, at the Capitol building, on a day when Congressman Luis Gutiérrez was there for a rally [for immigration reform],” Hebert tells me. Bannon and Breitbart would later point to that as the turning point for Brat, who won the primary by double-digits despite trailing in polls and raising a mere $200,000 to Cantor’s $5.5 million.
Hebert says he supported border security, and still does. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting secure borders,” he says. But, even then, he thought that, “Immigration makes our country stronger. Diversity makes our country stronger. He wasn’t taking a position on national security, but on identity.”
While it was enough to make him quit, it wasn’t enough to make him speak out. Part of that might have been out of professional embarrassment. Hebert says, “It wasn’t ideal to quit ten days before the primary, but I didn’t feel comfortable continuing any longer. It was a moral position.”
Personal experiences, and the national political shift, drove him to the left. “The Republican party itself has moved far to the right, but I’ve also moved to the left,” he says. “That came about after spending time with people from different backgrounds, travelling, and looking deeper at the issues.”
Brat says my blue collar father is going to have to wait for his social security, but we lower taxes on millionaires?
His fiscal views have changed in tandem with his social views. He says, “As a congressman, Dave Brat supported Trump’s tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. Then he turns around and says, “We can’t afford social security, we need to raise the retirement age.””
That hits close to home for Hebert, who says, “I just think about my father, who has worked a blue collar job his whole life. Dave Brat says my father is going to have to wait for his social security checks, but we had money to lower taxes on millionaires?”
He lives in Florida now, but Hebert wants to help Spanberger however he can, even if it means talking about a part of his history he regrets. “It’s just so important for people to come out and support Abigail. I see the division in our country right now, and I see Dave Brat as part of that division. He doesn’t want to work with people.”
“It’s important to me that our country tackles these problems together. I want to see someone go to Congress and tackle these problems, and I think that person is Abigail Spanberger.”