Randolph-Macon College economics professor Dave Brat, who raised only $231,000, beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor 55 percent to 45 percent in an historic victory for populist, protectionist conservatives Tuesday.
Was Brat’s win in the Virginia seventh district Republican primary a national referendum on amnesty? Yes. But it was also a powerful tea party statement on the Republican establishment’s corporate agenda. It shed light on a pro-amnesty push engineered by Eric Cantor and operating right out of the Virginia Republican Party office. And it confirmed the fundamental conspiracy theory of Brat’s campaign: that Democrats, immigration activists and Republicans are all working together behind the scenes to pass comprehensive immigration reform before this year’s November elections.
Dave Brat opened primary day Tuesday with a blunt statement: “No lawmaker is more beholden to large corporate funders than Eric Cantor. His corporate donors think they can buy this election.” They couldn’t. While Cantor chatted Tuesday with lobbyists at a Capitol Hill Starbucks, Brat posted Facebook links to polling locations. He prepared a small “Brat Pack Volunteer Appreciation Party” that convened at 7 p.m. at an out-of-the-way office complex off Route 695 in Glen Allen, Virginia. Before the clock struck eight, that pessimistically-titled “volunteer appreciation party” became a victory party.
Cantor’s more than $5 million campaign, meanwhile, went down in a ballroom scuffle at the Westin Hotel in Richmond, where immigration activists stormed the gathering around 9:30. Cantor spoke for four minutes about how “it’s disappointing,” then left in a black SUV before the activist group Casa de Virginia began chanting “What do we want? Immigration reform. When do we want it? Now.”
A young woman was headlocked in the melee as eyeglasses hit the floor and a Cantor supporter threw his wine at an intruder. As the majority leader of the Republican House caucus and his wife bitterly fled a scene straight out of a Tom Wolfe novel, we have to ask: Who the Hell is Dave Brat? And what has he been telling people?
Professor Brat may have a tendency to veer off-topic, according to student reviews of his business class, but for the last two weeks he stayed on message. In a 15-point Republican district, Brat ran exclusively against amnesty. It’s the kind of issue he approached from an academic perspective.
Brat’s campaign coincided with massive pro-amnesty protests in the seventh district targeting Cantor. The protests were organized in large part by former Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, whose “Fast 4 Families” bus tour hit Cantor’s hometown for a four-day fast in April (the protesters that ransacked Cantor campaign headquarters also participated in the fast).
Eliseo Medina served on the Hispanic Advisory Council for President Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008. He said in a speech captured on video that immigration reform will create a long-term progressive “governing coalition.” And his tenacious activist campaign was wearing Cantor down. Brand-new Virginia Republican executive director Shaun Kenney, a former Cantor political consultant whose wife was running Cantor’s campaign against Brat, welcomed Medina into the state party office in April for a meeting in which Kenney promised his support for immigration reform and said that anti-amnesty Republicans are afraid of “The Other.”
Medina’s national pressure campaign was intended to lock down Cantor’s support for amnesty on Capitol Hill, but instead it created a fragmented political landscape in the Virginia suburbs and opened the door for Brat to step up with essentially a third-party campaign on the issue: Not only is Eric Cantor refusing to block immigration reform, but he’s actively pushing for it on behalf of his corporate cronies, who want cheap labor.
Brat, who had been running for six months, laid out his theories in his first district press conference just two weeks ago, after Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez visited the Richmond state house to pressure Cantor on immigration. Brat, dismissed by the Huffington Post as a “longshot,” stepped up and told local reporters what was really going on: “Congressman Guitterez is here to set up a great deception for the voters that will allow Eric Cantor to claim he is opposed to amnesty at the eleventh hour just two weeks prior to the primary on this June 10th.”
According to Brat, Democrats and Republicans were in cahoots to prop up Cantor on a false anti-amnesty platform, which would keep Cantor in Congress while the two sides worked out an immigration deal. Brat called on Cantor to reveal the names of lobbyists with whom he’s discussed immigration. Brat declared, “If we want to stop amnesty, we must stop Eric Cantor.”
Cantor, meanwhile, hired Shaun Kenney’s wife Melissa’s local firm K6 Consulting to run his small-scale campaign against Brat.
Shaun Kenney, a former Cantor political consultant, took over as executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia in April. Cantor is rumored to have placed Shaun Kenney in the state party position, which was seen as a major political accomplishment for Cantor. Shaun Kenney was the proprietor of the pro-amnesty “Bearing Drift” local political blog, which sent him off by joking that the state party’s political situation in 2014 “cried out for an Irishman’s touch.”
When news leaked out on The Daily Caller that Kenney was meeting with Medina and strongly supporting immigration reform, Cantor-World took a significant political hit in the talk radio realm. The public knew that Cantor’s man at the state party was pushing for amnesty even as his own wife was sending out campaign material touting Cantor’s anti-amnesty credentials.
Brat crossed the goal line this week with endorsements from Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham, who headlined a rally for him in the seventh district with Alan Keyes. Otherwise, Brat has mostly been hitting town halls, appearing at the ones in Spotsylvania, Louisa, Culpepper, and Orange and also the Ashland Strawberry Festival in recent days.
“Face-to-face positive interaction. That’s what you do,” Brat’s 23-year old campaign manager Zachary Werrell told the Washington Examiner by phone following his improbable victory. “We had dozens of people knocking every day — not every day, sometimes only one person.”
Brat’s campaign, operating out of P.O. Box 5094 in Glen Allen, Virginia, has been running a slightly-noticed Twitter account for at least a few weeks, sending out Milton Friedman memes and messages of Second Amendment support. But Brat received no endorsements from any major tea party groups, making him even more of an outlier than J.D. Winteregg, the Ohio schoolteacher who lost his job running against John Boehner in May. In fact, conservative groups like the National Federation of Independent Business endorsed Cantor.
That might have something to do with Brat’s rhetoric, which isn’t too kind to conservative groups that push amnesty in order to get their clients cheap workers. Brat accused Cantor of “working hand in glove with the Chamber of Commerce to boost the supply of low-wage labor” in a statement the night before the primary. Brat’s last-minute campaign fliers, all of which focused on amnesty, featured passages from the work of reporters named Neil Munro and Mickey Kaus.
Republicans found themselves on both sides of the Cantor-Brat debate Tuesday night. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, one of Cantor’s earliest supporters, gave a “deeply saddened” statement claiming that voters “expressed their outrage with President Obama by nominating Dave Brat.”
Eliseo Medina tweeted Tuesday night that the “Lesson” of Eric Cantor’s loss was that (translated from Twitter): “blocking comprehensive immigration reform and doubling down on immigrant bashing doesn’t work.” Medina added that Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers both “leaned into [comprehensive immigration reform] support and won” their GOP primaries.
But Medina’s statement was dishonest. Eric Cantor was not thrown out by the voters for opposing immigration reform in a district where less than five percent of the population is Hispanic. Cantor was thrown out by the voters for supporting immigration reform.
“Eric Cantor is trying to turn Virginia workers into an underclass in their own country,” Dave Brait railed on the eve of the primary. “If he is re-elected he will resume his cheap labor crusade with everything he has. A vote for Eric Cantor is a vote for open borders. A vote for Eric Cantor is a vote to sell America to the highest bidder.”
“This campaigning thing is not easy,” Brat told parishioners at Hanover County’s Life Church back in April. “It looks like it’s easy, it looks like it’s fun. But put yourself in my shoes, literally, right and imagine what I got coming in a few weeks.”
Brat paused, already with the charisma of a veteran campaigner, and smirked. “In terms of what’s going to enter your mailboxes, whatever.”
Brat next faces Democrat and historical children’s book author Jack Trammell in November’s general election.