The railroad matters a great deal in this small Virginia town. It divides the main street, lined with coffee shops, boutiques, and a grocery store dating to 1912. It passes the regional library turned polling place, where town residents trickle in to cast their votes in the Congressional election for Virginia’s Seventh District.
And it cuts through the campus of Randolph-Macon College—which, in a surprising turn, furnished both candidates in this year’s race.
It’s the Republican David A. Brat, a professor of economics and business, running against the Democrat Jack Trammell, a professor of sociology and the college’s director of disabilities services. The improbability of the matchup is heightened by the fact that Mr. Brat unexpectedly bested the district’s incumbent, Rep. Eric I. Cantor, then the House majority leader, in the Republican primary back in June.
The news media latched onto the story immediately after Mr. Brat’s primary win. Two colleagues from the same small, private liberal-arts college—one with an enrollment of just about 1,300—vying for one seat? That was hard to resist. Students and professors recall the rumbling of the television satellite trucks that pulled up to the campus this past summer, signaling the arrival of intense national interest in the small community.
"Congressional midterms generally don’t generate a lot of interest and excitement," says Lauren Bell, dean of academic affairs and a professor of political science. But this time, she says, "there’s been this buzz that has been building."
And on Tuesday, after months of campaigning, it was finally Election Day in Ashland. In a few hours, students and faculty members would gather to eat pizza and watch election returns in the new student center, a few blocks from the railroad tracks—which continue 90 miles north to Washington, D.C., where one of Randolph-Macon’s professors will soon take his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
A 'Home Run for Randolph-Macon’
Outside the town library, a stone globe rotating on a pedestal bears the inscription "Ashland: Center of the Universe."
Randolph-Macon has co-opted the slogan, introduced by a former mayor, as part of a marketing campaign it has built around the election. For the new campaign, the college has rechristened itself the "Center of the Political Universe."
Politics has always been part of Randolph-Macon’s identity. The college’s namesakes, John Randolph and Nathaniel Macon, both served in the U.S. House and Senate in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. An alumnus represents Virginia’s Fourth District in the House, a faculty member is the mayor of Ashland, and a library staff member is on the Town Council.
"What’s been interesting—it’s a little bit of a pet peeve of mine—is the media tends to treat Randolph-Macon like this is our first encounter with practical politics," Ms. Bell says. "We really do have a pretty engaged and informed student body. It’s been a little gratifying to see people come from outside and realize that."
But the Brat-Trammell rivalry was something new entirely. After the initial crush of media attention subsided, college administrators decided that a unique promotional opportunity had fallen into their laps. Why not seize it?
"Given the fact we had two faculty members opposing one another, could we promote it as a storyline about the college and about what we do here?" says the college’s president, Robert R. Lindgren. "We determined that we could and we should."
So the college hired a consulting firm, created election-themed videos, welcomed the press, and chronicled the race via social media. Ms. Bell engaged students in a unique "living civics lesson," a semester-long seminar about political leadership. On Election Day, she sent about 40 students to conduct exit polls at the 36 precincts in Hanover County.
"One of the things I felt strongly about is that we have some academic dimension to this," Ms. Bell says. "It’s really easy to get caught up in the hype. I wanted students to have the chance to think about the academic perspective and not just a political perspective."
The culmination of the college’s efforts was hosting a debate between Mr. Brat and Mr. Trammell, held on October 28 in the campus auditorium. The venue was packed; and college students, alumni, and local high schoolers watched via livestream at parties across the campus.
"It was a real home run for Randolph-Macon," says Mr. Lindgren, who helped moderate the event.
At least some students caught the election fever. They used the hashtag #Brammell to discuss the race on Twitter. They waited for hours to get seats at the debate. And they registered to vote: According to J.D. Rackey, a senior who is president of the RMC Young Democrats, one two-hour voter-registration drive signed up as many students as would normally register in a week.
After all, as the sorority sisters Amy Northrop, a senior, and Ally Jensen, a junior, noted, it’s pretty impressive that nearly 2 percent of the college’s 110-member faculty was running for Congress.
"Does Harvard have two professors running for Congress? Probably not," Ms. Jensen says. (She’s right, it doesn’t.) "It sounds cheesy, but it makes you proud to go here."
A Low-Key Celebration
Three days ago, Ashland celebrated Train Day, a local event that acknowledges the key role the railroad played in the town’s development. Signs advertising the festivities are still posted everywhere around the town. Campaign signs, though, are few and far between.
And there are few visual clues about the election on the Randolph-Macon campus. The bookstore is selling gray and black T-shirts boasting the institution’s name and the words "Brat vs. Trammell," plus red-white-and-blue buttons with both candidates’ names. A library display case features photos of the two professors, alongside information about the Lincoln-Douglas and Kennedy-Nixon debates. The college’s student newspaper, The Yellow Jacket, teases election coverage on its front page. But there are few bumper stickers and no apparent campaigning.
The lack of apparent partisanship stems in part from the college’s nonpartisan treatment of the candidates. Both are on unpaid leave.
According to Ms. Bell, the college spent time "strategizing" to ensure that it treated both professors "absolutely, scrupulously the same."
But the low-key campus reflects another reality: Many members of the college community don’t consider this election personally significant.
"I would say the college is very excited but not utterly transformed," says Cedar Riener, an assistant professor of psychology. "Most of us are happy this is happening, happy for the attention, but we’re still grading our piles of papers, and students are still doing what students do—working hard in their classes and relaxing."
Several students say the race hasn’t affected their normal routines, nor has it interested them all that much.
"You can pretty much avoid it. I'm not political at all, and neither are my friends," says Jessica Caso, a junior from Greensboro, N.C., who notes she’s not registered to vote in the Seventh District.
But muted expressions of political feeling don’t necessarily indicate apathy. The small size of the student body may make some students reluctant to project their opinions, Mr. Riener suggests.
Allison Carpenter, president of the college’s newly formed RMC Young Republicans group, agrees.
"I’m a strong Republican, but I don’t like to throw it out in people’s faces," she says. "You don’t see someone screaming they’re from one party or another. I think it’s a respect thing."
Her theory plays out at the on-campus watch party. The Young Republicans, Young Democrats, and Political Science Students Association worked together to host the event, and students pop in and out, greeting friends and professors and grabbing slices of pizza.
At 8 p.m. Richard J. Meagher Jr., an assistant professor of political science, steps up to a microphone and asks for students’ attention. With 48 percent of precincts reporting, CNN has called the race in favor of Mr. Brat.
After a beat, there’s a round of weak applause. No one seems sure what to do. If any students feel strongly, they’re not showing it.
A few leave, drawn by homework or club meetings or the gym. But others stay. For the next hour, more and more arrive, until the room is filled with members of the Randolph-Macon community, gathered to watch one of their own steer toward Washington, full steam ahead.