Late last month, Tea Party activist David Brat was mocked within Republican political circles for passing up a chance to raise some big money for his improbable challenge to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Tuesday's Virginia GOP primary race.
Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., had arranged to attend two meetings: one at the weekly breakfast meeting hosted by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform; the other at a Capitol Hill gathering of far-right conservative operatives named after the late conservative strategist Paul Weyrich, The Washington Post reported.
According to The Post, Brat thought that "once he got buy-in from them, his poorly funded campaign could quickly become a rally point for conservatives in Virginia and elsewhere who are frustrated with Cantor and the House Republican leadership." He hoped to capitalize on growing resentment toward Cantor on issues ranging from immigration reform to Obamacare.
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Yet when Brat failed to show up for either event, many Republicans wrote him off as a loser who would get swamped by the House majority leader. Cantor had spent $5 million on his reelection campaign compared to just $206,000 for Brat. The Tea Party challenger's aides later pleaded that Brat had "academic obligations" the week before finals that kept him away, but it seemed like a lame excuse.
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In hindsight, Brat had no need for that outside financial assistance. Tuesday night he stunned the political world by toppling Cantor in the GOP primary race in Virginia's 7th Congressional District — throwing the House GOP leadership into chaos and likely instilling fear in the hearts of scores of more moderate or establishment Republicans around the country.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Brat beat Cantor 56 percent to 44 percent, in a congressional district including the highly conservative suburban areas of Richmond.
Brat's unexpected victory jolted the GOP by upending the second-ranking Republican in the House, who was widely considered the top candidate to succeed House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Brat's victory also provided a major boost to other Tea Party candidates who are challenging establishment Republicans in other primary contests.
Tea Party adherent Chris McDaniel, a state senator and former conservative radio host, is running against veteran Republican Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi and is favored to win a runoff contest later this month. Brat's victory will almost certainly provide McDaniel with an added boost in that contest.
The upset likely will also change the course of the debate over immigration reform — making it even more difficult than it already is for House Republicans to consider compromising with the Senate on a plan that would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants in this country.
Cantor in recent years had sought to broaden his political base and appeal, at times softening his once harsh social and economic views. The majority leader had supported a GOP version of the Dream Act. The proposal would have enabled some undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children to qualify for in-state college tuition rates.
Cantor never brought that legislation to the House floor, but his championing of the idea drew the ire of those steadfastly opposed to immigration reform, according to media reports. Brat dismissed Cantor as a champion of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, and some of the Tea Party candidate's followers booed Cantor at a Republican event. Brat also campaigned on being a fiscal conservative committed to low taxes and low spending. His campaign website stressed his dedication to the "Republican creed."
Cantor, a 12-year veteran of the House, attempted to rebut Brat's charges on immigration by using some of his huge campaign war chest to mail fliers and air television ads in which he claimed to oppose an amnesty policy, according to The New York Times.
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Cantor's campaign also ran an ad seeking to portray Brat as "liberal" and playing up his work "on Democrat Gov. Tim Kaine's Council of Economic Advisers."
With significant help from conservative talk radio figures such as Laura Ingraham, Brat was able to mobilize opposition to Cantor in the 7th Congressional District, which is one of the most conservative areas of the state.
So who is this new giant killer? According to his own bio:
- Brat joined the faculty at Randolph-Macon College in 1996. He has primarily taught economics but also has a deep interest in public policy. He has also worked for Arthur Andersen, the U.S. Army, and the World Bank.
- He works as special legislative assistant to State Senator Walter Stosch as well as serves on the Governor's Advisory Board of Economists, and the Boards of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and Great Aspirations Scholarship Program (GRASP). Brat also works with the Richmond Area Business Economists, and he has served as President of the Virginia Association of Economists.
- He earned his B.A. in Business at Hope College, a small liberal arts college in Holland, Michigan, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and received his Ph.D. in Economics from the American University in Washington, D.C.
- He is married and has two children.
—By Eric Pianin, The Fiscal Times