Republicans, Democrats and most political pundits have been telling us for months that grassroots conservatism is on the wane, that the tea party movement has run out of steam and is destined for the ash heap of political history.
Dave Brat blew up that narrative Tuesday night with a stunning primary victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the most significant rejection of establishment Republicans in years. Outspent by a margin of more than 15-1, Brat rallied grassroots activists with policies that reflect the concerns of people and their outrage at how Washington politicians ignore the people they’re supposed to represent.
It would be easy to say that Cantor doomed his candidacy with his vocal support for amnesty. As one of the GOP’s loudest voices for granting amnesty to illegal immigrants, he was supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other pro-amnesty groups. But in doing so, he lost the support of his constituents, who know that flooding the labor market with millions of illegal immigrants will not provide the economic recovery this nation so desperately needs.
But people in Cantor’s central Virginia congressional district are concerned about more than just amnesty. They are worried about jobs and the economy, about how Obamacare is making their health care more expensive and less accessible, and a growing federal debt that threatens our economic future and that of future generations. Brat and his supporters understood this; Cantor did not, and he paid a steep price for his lack of understanding.
Brat ran and won by framing these key issues in terms of constitutional principles, rule of law, free markets, fiscal discipline and secure borders. These represent the core values of the tea party agenda and demonstrate the potency of these issues. In a very real sense, Brat’s race also represents a victory for average Americans far beyond Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. The House of Representatives is supposed to be the people’s House and the people began to reclaim it Tuesday by throwing Cantor out of office.
People who earn their living trying to divine the meaning of elections will invariably default to the simplistic horse race of politics; which group supported who and who played what role in the outcome. It’s a fools errand that fails to understand a simple fact; activists who belong to a variety of tea party groups coalesced behind a strong candidate and carried him to victory. It is with them that Brat shares the credit.
Brat’s victory is a cautionary tale to Republicans going forward in the 2014 election cycle. Cantor and other establishment Republicans have turned their backs on their constituents for too long and they will no longer stand for it. Whether it’s amnesty for illegal immigrants, Obamacare or federal spending, conservatives are speaking up and insist on being heard. Cantor heard them, but only after losing his job as the number two Republican in the House.
In the final analysis, Dave Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor is about far more than a getting a scalp in a primary election; it’s about being right on the issues and motivating grassroots activists who are empowered by their tea party affiliations. Good policy is good politics and Brat proved that to the Republican Party on June 10. Whether the establishment GOP is listening remains to be seen, but if they want to keep their jobs, they’ll start paying attention.
Jenny Beth Martin is chairman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.