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Randolph-Macon College Prepares for Big-Stage Political Debate

RICHMOND, Va. ― Tiny Randolph-Macon College is set for its star turn tonight as it hosts a congressional debate between two faculty members.

Republican Dave Brat, who rode a tea party-backed wave to national prominence by defeating former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a summer primary, will debate tonight with Democrat Jack Trammell at the school where they both teach.

College President Robert R. Lindgren said demand for tickets to the forum, which will be held in an auditorium that holds about 650, has far outweighed supply. Tickets available in an online lottery were snatched up almost instantly, Lindgren said.

“They disappeared in about three minutes,” Lindgren said. “We thought it was a Rolling Stones concert or something.”

The liberal arts college of about 1,300 students, which is affiliated with the Methodist Church, was named after two congressmen: John Randolph of Roanoke and Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina. Now, barring a massive upset by Libertarian candidate James Carr, the Ashland-based school will have another direct link to the U.S. House of Representatives.

“We’re just really excited that no matter what one of our professors is going to be in Congress,” said sophomore PJ Costello, who is volunteering for Brat’s campaign.

Brat is favored to win in the heavily Republican 7th Congressional District, which includes Richmond-area suburbs and stretches to Culpepper. An economics professor who has run largely on a free markets platform, Brat rose from obscurity to become a rare bright spot for tea party-backed candidates this election cycle. In recent weeks he’s had Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul come to the district to help him campaign.

Trammell, a sociology professor and fiction writer, has played up the fact that he’s a Democrat who lives on a farm, hunts and fishes. He’s taken an aggressive stance, accusing Brat of avoiding candidate forums and running ads suggesting Brat wants to end Social Security.

Both men have taken leave from teaching to campaign. Because of Cantor’s decision to resign before his term ends, both candidates are also up for a special election on Nov. 4 to pick who will finish the rest of Cantor’s term.

The debate format Tuesday will not allow the candidates to question each other directly, but there’s still plenty of potential for fireworks.

At a forum last week, Brat expressed frustrations that his opponent was running negative TV ads against him and accused Trammell of being intentionally vague with his own views.

“It’s almost like we’re in a Seinfeld show about nothing,” Brat said. “My opponent is running on nothing.”

But senior Sarah Maxwell, a member of the school’s student government, said the politically energized campus isn’t experiencing any partisan rifts among students. She said she’s working with the heads of both the campus Young Republicans and Young Democrats to organize a joint viewing party on Election Day.

“If anything it’s bringing the campus together,” she said.

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