Nancy Russell, the chair of the Hanover County GOP, isn’t shy about saying she supported Rep. Eric Cantor in his Virginia primary race last week. She expected most of her fellow Republicans in the 7th District, which stretches from the northern suburbs of Richmond north and west into the rural counties toward Washington, to do the same. Even so, she had heard neighbor after neighbor say they were fed up with their congressman. “I felt certain Eric was not going to take Hanover,” says Russell.
Cantor, 51, was hardly in the district, they told her. He supported amnesty for illegal immigrants. He was getting too comfortable in Washington. Even some who liked the House majority leader said they planned on voting for Dave Brat, a 49-year-old professor of economics and Cantor’s primary challenger, just to “send him a message.”
Message received. Brat became the first primary candidate ever to defeat a sitting majority leader, beating Cantor by 12 percentage points and more than 7,000 votes. Cantor lost even in his supposed strongholds in the Richmond suburbs, including Hanover County, which cast the third-highest number of votes in the district, by a whopping 36 percentage points. It was all the more shocking since in 2012 Cantor sailed through his primary with 79 percent of the vote.
The raw numbers underscore just how badly Cantor was beaten. Brat won about 36,000 votes to Cantor’s nearly 29,000. Had Cantor held on to the more than 37,000 votes he got in the 2012 primary, Dave Brat’s name would be a footnote in the political history books. Instead, observers in Washington and elsewhere have had to scramble to figure out just who Brat is, how to pronounce his name (it rhymes with “cat”), and how he pulled off the political upset of the century.
Born in Michigan, Brat attended Hope College, a conservative school with Calvinist roots near Lake Michigan. He graduated in 1986 with a degree in business administration, after which he worked for a year as a consultant for accounting giant Arthur Andersen. Brat then left the company to attend Princeton Theological Seminary, graduating with a Master of Divinity degree in 1990.
But Brat didn’t go into the ministry or back to consulting. That same year, he began an economics Ph.D. at American University in Washington, D.C., which he completed in 1995. In 1996, he joined the faculty of the economics department at Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts school in Ashland, Va., and since 2005, he’s been the department chair. As an academic, Brat has been prolific but mostly unremarkable. His calling appears to have been as a teacher and administrator. Former students commenting on his page at RateMyProfessors.com call him a “very good teacher and straightforward,” “unparalleled in his knowledge,” and, interestingly, “total eye candy.”
Not one of his students described him as a “liberal,” but that’s exactly how the Cantor campaign defined Brat in one TV ad that called him a “liberal college professor.” The evidence for that claim was Brat’s work in what was essentially an honorary advisory position to former Democratic governor Tim Kaine. Russell says the “liberal professor” ad was Cantor’s first folly. The lame charge didn’t just fall flat—it reeked of desperation. “People were mad about that,” says Russell.
While hardly a liberal, Brat isn’t easy to pin down ideologically. The “main thing” Brat says he’s interested in is “a commitment to free markets.” The New York Times described him in their front-page story Wednesday as a “Tea Party-backed economics professor” before acknowledging that Brat had “little help from national groups that have funded Tea Party challengers.” And in his election-night appearance with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Brat downplayed the connection. “I had . . . just wonderful people in the Tea Party and grassroots helping me out, and they are clearly responsible for the win,” he said. “But I ran on the Republican principles.”
To Brat, though, following Republican and free-market principles doesn’t necessarily mean supporting policies that benefit corporate America. In fact, his most focused attack on Cantor was that the majority leader was in the pocket of big business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other corporate interests—particularly on immigration reform. Cantor had been vocal in the past about his desire to pass some kind of immigration bill, one that opponents suggest would offer amnesty to illegal immigrants in the country currently and in the future.
Unlike some antiamnesty activists, Brat didn’t go nativist in his criticisms. His vastly underfunded campaign (Cantor may have outspent him by as much as 40 to 1) sent out a simple mailer with a photo featuring a smiling Cantor standing with Silicon Valley billionaire and immigration reform advocate Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s headquarters. “There are 20 million Americans who can’t find a full-time job. But Eric Cantor wants to give corporations another 20 million foreign workers to hire instead,” reads the text.
“Eric Cantor doesn’t represent you,” Brat wrote in an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch published just days before the election. “He represents large corporations seeking a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor. He doesn’t care about how this will affect your livelihood, your schools, your tax bills or your kids’ chances of finding a job.”
It was a message of economic populism, but more broadly it was an anti-Washington message. And there are few House members more at home in D.C. than Eric Cantor. A seven-term congressman, he rose rapidly through the ranks of GOP leadership, gaining a conservative voting record as well as a reputation as a Capitol Hill operator. Cantor was widely seen as a top pick to succeed John Boehner when the House speaker retires. He was also a dogged fundraiser for his fellow Republicans. One embarrassing detail reported after the election: Cantor had spent more of his campaign cash at D.C.-area steakhouses for fundraising events than Brat had spent on his entire primary campaign.
As majority leader, Cantor likely expected Republican voters to appreciate their congressman’s proximity to the center of political power in this country. But that’s not what Nancy Russell heard from her fellow Virginia Republicans. “I almost feel like they’d rather not have their representative in the leadership,” she says. In a cautionary tale for any ambitious member of Congress, Cantor’s success in Washington was, back home, his ultimate undoing.
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.