In the New York Times, Jonathan Martin calls David Brat's defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary "one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history."
So it is—perhaps the most stunning upset since in congressional history since an underfunded and little known challenger, Jeff Bell, defeated a 24-year incumbent, Clifford Case, in the 1978 New Jersey GOP Senate primary. Like Brat, Bell focused on one issue to oust the incumbent. In Bell's case, it was supply-side tax cuts. In Brat's case, the issue was immigration. But like Brat, Bell used his main issue as a kind of example and pivot point for the need for a broader change in orientation by the Republican party.
In both cases, the challengers made a broad populist case for a Republican party focused on Main Street and Middle America, not on Wall Street and corporate interests. The reigning Republican orthodoxy in 1978 was that if tax cuts were needed, they should be business-friendly ones, not cuts in personal marginal income tax rates. Similarly, Brat used his critique of "amnesty" to launch a broad assault on GOP elites who put the interests of American corporations over American workers, of D.C. lobbyists over American families. Also, in both cases most national conservative leaders and groups stayed out of the race, thinking the challenge was hopeless or that the challengers' issues was too eccentric. Both Bell and Brat won authentic grassroots victories.
There are of course differences. For one thing, Bell lost in November 1978 to Bill Bradley; Brat will probably win this November. (Of course Bell could win that same seat this November against Cory Booker!) But in a broader sense, Bell won. His issue, supply-side economics, and his overall populist perspective were picked up by Ronald Reagan in 1979 and 1980, who rode them to the GOP presidential nomination and the presidency.
It's not clear who the Reagan in today's scenario is—though of course it wasn't clear back in 1978 that Reagan would become the Reagan of 1980. It's also not clear whether Brat's message can become as forward-looking as Bell's, and Reagan's. Supply-side economics was growth economics. Anti-immigration economics can seem to be entirely defensive economics.
It needn't be, though. The challenge for Brat and those who are well disposed to him is to build on his victory to develop a bigger, forward-looking agenda to advance the prospects of Main Street American workers and families. Senators like Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and Jeff Sessions have started suggesting elements of such an agenda, just as Jack Kemp was advancing Bell's agenda in Congress in the late 1970s. In the House where Jack Kemp served, congressmen like Paul Ryan and Tom Price (in a speech at the Heritage Foundation later today, he'll call for a bold and reformist of "conservative incrementalism") are playing an increasingly important and potentially Kemp-like role. The question now is: Will there be a presidential candidate who, like Reagan, transforms a cry of populist protest into a presidential-level governing populist agenda?