In his Republican primary race on Tuesday evening, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) was a bigger favorite than California Chrome. (Last week, Cantor’s campaign claimed a more than 2-to-1 polling lead.) But in both cases we’re reminded “that’s why they run the race.”
The most common reaction after economics professor Dave Brat crushed Rep. Cantor by 56 percent to 44 percent — despite Brat’s campaign raising and spending less than 5 percent of Cantor’s total — was “Nobody saw it coming.” In an article that appears to have been re-written following the election, the Washington Post predicted that Brat would “fall far short.” (How nice to be able to delete failed predictions; I’m sure Cantor’s pollsters wish they could do the same.) Perhaps the skepticism of Brat’s chances shouldn’t be a surprise because although Brat was considered a more credible challenger than many of Cantor’s prior Republican foes, no sitting House Majority Leader had ever before lost a primary.
The left is already trumpeting this political earthquake as representing a Tea Party takeover of the GOP — a point they’ve been trying to make for some time despite the relative lack of success of pro-liberty groups in the 2012 primary season (including Senator Lindsey Graham’s trouncing of all of his Tea Party opponents at the same time that Cantor was losing as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s easy victory against a flawed but strongly Tea Party-backed challenger).
But despite the “Tea Party” appellation in nearly every news article about the election, Brat is only a Tea Party candidate in the sense of running on principles and seeming to be sincere when referencing the American Constitution — both of which are anathema to the Fourth Estate and too often to Republican leadership who prefer constitutional lip service over honoring their oaths of office.
While Mr. Brat did get significant support from several high-profile conservative talk radio hosts such as Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, and from some small local Tea Party groups in Virginia, no major national Tea Party group came to Brat’s aid, financially or in any other public way. If this represents the new Tea Party, both the establishment and Democrats should be even more afraid than they might have been following their 2010 “shellacking.”
Looking across a range of Republican primary races so far this year and stipulating that there are plenty of exceptions to the rule (such as Senator Graham), what we’re learning this season is that Republican primary voters are getting a little smarter about selecting pro-Constitution, pro-liberty candidates who can actually win in November. The Tea Party is maturing but not being co-opted.
This may be why, for example, Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary is going to a runoff despite there being few senators more needing of retirement than pork king Thad Cochran: his Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel, a former radio talk show host, isn’t a sure thing to win in November. (Take it from me, radio show hosts have a lot of material out there that can be used against us — particularly when taken out of context, though even that isn’t always necessary.) No doubt Tuesday’s results in Virginia will energize those Mississippians who would like to see Thad Cochran return to private life; I wish them success.
If the Virginia-7 race didn’t represent the left’s caricature of the Tea Party against the Republican Party, what was it about? A few key issues:
- Standing on principle, as compared to Eric Cantor’s reputation for saying quite different things to different audiences and seeming utterly self-serving. Despite being warned by conservatives, in April Rep. Cantor attended a meeting of the MainStreet PAC, a group that markets itself as Republican but whose primary aim is to attack Tea Party candidates.
- Too much non-credible negativity: Cantor assailed Brat as a “liberal college professor” and chastised him for serving on a Democratic governor’s joint Advisory Board of Economists even though he also served under a Republican governor. All this despite Brat’s being a well-spoken consistent conservative who routinely laid out constitutional and free market-oriented solutions to many of our nation’s largest problems. One chance to hear David Brat instantly proved Eric Cantor a liar.
- Immigration: Although the charge was overwrought, David Brat’s campaign repeatedly accused Eric Cantor of supporting amnesty. Particularly in the context of ongoing news that thousands of unaccompanied Hispanic children — mostly under the age of 12 — are being sent, alone, to the United States and Attorney General Eric Holder’s effort to give those children “fair legal representation,” anything that carries even a whiff of “amnesty” smacks of lawlessness, a trait that sadly is the single best descriptor of the Obama administration. I do not believe Eric Cantor would have supported amnesty, though the term has a wide range of usages depending on the speaker’s agenda. It did not help Cantor that he has been unconvincing and “fuzzy” in his own rhetoric on the issue. Nevertheless, this election could put a fork in the chances of immigration reform not just this year, but for several years to come — a result that some will cheer despite the obvious need to fix a failed and failing system.
- Eric Cantor’s reputation for being arrogant and unreliable. A House staffer speaking on background for this article noted, “I don’t dispute that characterization. But I think he was capable of keeping the trains running on time. It will be interesting to see where the party goes now.” Where it goes now is to choose a new House Majority Leader, perhaps even in the next few months as Cantor’s ability to lead — and perhaps his motivation as well — may be fatally degraded. One likely candidate is former Republican Study Committee and current House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). The chase to replace John Boehner (R-OH) as Speaker of the House is also now a wide-open affair; indeed another of Cantor’s problems was that he seemed to be spending too much time angling for the speakership and not enough time understanding or speaking to his own constituents (a real difference from Lindsey Graham, for example, who did not seem so detached from the people who voted him into office even if his conservative bona fides are somewhat tarnished).
I trust I’m not alone in that the first time I heard Dave Brat’s voice was Tuesday evening after he became the most recent political giant-killer. As far as first impressions go, he couldn’t have been better, giving Sean Hannity a solution-oriented litany of references to (and appreciation of) the Constitution, free markets, property rights and the rule of law (to be supported in other countries as the best policy to deal with unwanted immigration to the U.S.), and federalism. He closed the interview by saying, “I just believe in ideas.” What a breath of fresh air. And what a contrast from Eric Cantor whose beliefs I think many of us are still unclear on.
Brat, the former president of the Virginia Association of Economists, did not come across as a bomb-throwing “right-wing nut.” Instead, he seems a credible messenger for a segment of the Republican Party that is sick and tired of the “establishment,” not because its members are established but because they so often seem to stand for so little beyond their own offices and so often offer platitudes rather than solutions.
Dave Brat leaves me feeling satisfied that Virginia’s voters made a good choice (despite losing the only Jewish Republican in Congress).
In a second discussion with Hannity (on camera rather than by telephone), after giving a solid answer to the issue of health care costs (that insulating people from the true cost of care is responsible for the explosion in those costs — an argument that applies equally to college tuitions, among topics in the news lately), Brat gave his fundamental approach to governing: “The history of nations is the history of central governments run amok. United States’ exceptionalism has been to stay away from that tendency.… Most every federal program is insolvent right now and everybody knows it.…We need to change course and fix some big problems.”
Yes, Virginia, there is a candidate worth supporting — and I thank you for doing so.