Why Brat Beat Cantor

David Brat. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.
David Brat. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

I rarely pontificate about congressional races but I live in the 7th Congressional District, so I believe I have a few insights into how David Brat slew Goliath, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. National media have examined the race through the prism of national issues such as immigration and the Tea Party. While those issues may have had a marginal impact, I think they don’t explain much. The fact is, Cantor and Brat were both conservative candidates, and they both jostled to out-conservative the other. I think the electorate’s rejection of Cantor had more to do with style than substance. Let me give two examples.

A few months ago my wife and I had just sat down for dinner at an expensive local steakhouse, Buckhead’s, when in walked Cantor, his wife and his bodyguard. (Buckhead’s was a treat for us; apparently, Cantor is a big steak eater. He reportedly dropped $168K in campaign money on Bobby Van’s Steak House in New York and and BLT Steak in Washington, D.C.) The hostess started to seat him in the table next to ours but someone had other ideas, and the group wound up seated in a back corner of the restaurant away from everyone else. My wife joked at the time that he was avoiding me, the notorious blogger, but I am pretty certain he had no idea who I was. Here’s the point: We didn’t see him interact with anyone in the restaurant. He gave every indication of wanting to avoid his constituents. There is a reason that Cantor has the reputation of being aloof. He is aloof.

By way of contrast, my wife and I were working in our front garden a couple of weeks ago when who should come rolling down our suburban cul-de-sac street but David Brat and a lad whom I took to be his son. He yelled out something to the effect, “Hi, I’m David Brat and I’m running for Congress.” I’d met Brat a couple of times before he announced his candidacy so I spent some time chatting with him. It was getting warm and Brat had sweat stains in his underarms and perspiration on his forehead but he was upbeat and enthusiastic. I sicced him on a neighbor, and off he went like Labrador after a duck. While Cantor was entertaining the big-money special interests in New York and Washington, Brat was pressing the flesh in the 7th District.

Cantor compounded his image problem by labeling Brat as a “liberal college professor” and sticking with the charge even after it had been debunked by every objective source. The original charge was sleazy enough. But to persist in making the charge a centerpiece of the campaign after it was repudiated was an insult to the intelligence of Republican voters. Anyone who paid any attention to the campaign could see that the charge was a bald-faced lie, and I have to think that many asked themselves, “How f***ing stupid do you think I am?”

While the local Tea Party backed Brat, it was not a major factor. The simple fact is, the local Tea Party chapters are not especially strong or well-financed. The national Tea Party organizations all wrote him off. Although local Tea Partiers did contribute to Brat’s organization, it is ridiculous to see Brat’s victory as a Tea Party victory. The election reflects a dissatisfaction with politics as usual that extends beyond the Tea Party. While Cantor gave lip service to the ideal of a smaller, more fiscally responsible federal government, he came across as a pol who was all too happy to sell out to the D.C. political class. He surrounded himself with security guards and staff minions. He spent more time fund raising with special interests than listening to his constituents. Yes, he was powerful in Washington, D.C., but the folks back home were not impressed by his ability to articulate their hopes and fears.

Republican voters are sick and tired of the way business is done in Washington. They view the nation’s capital as a stinking cesspool that favors insiders. They see crony capitalists buying politicians and rigging the rules to loot the middle class. Republican voters see Republican leaders in Washington as less rapacious than the Democrats but not a whole lot better. They think term limits are a good idea because they know that, given enough time, the D.C. political culture can corrupt the most virtuous. To the middle-class voters of the 7th District, politicians are expendable. Eric Cantor was expendable. Voting for David Brat sent a message.

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19 responses to “Why Brat Beat Cantor”

  1. larryg Avatar

    Look at this heat map.


    I might say that the dissatisfaction with Cantor and Washington does seem to vary geographically and it appears that Northern Henrico and Hanover are the center of the dissatisfaction.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Got to agree with you on this one.

    1. larryg Avatar

      I think anyone who thinks that personalities can change Washington is not playing with a full deck myself.

      It’s sort of a collective act of defiance – but in terms of changing Washington, forget it unless you think shutting down the govt over a failure to compromise is better than the alternative.

      see, people are unhappy with Washington and Congress – both sides – look at he polls… but real knowledge comes when you realize that those dissatisfied, agree on what the right path forward is.

      We, agree we don’t like Washington.. we don’t agree at all on how to go forward.

      You can blame this on Cantor but basically he’s just a casualty in the blame game.

      The very best that Brat could hope for – would be to become another Rand Paul who wants to cut the Military and apparently holds his office because the alternatives are worse in the eyes of the voters.

      What chance does Rand Paul have – to actually enact legislation that we believes in? Snowball in hell – territory – even on the GOP side.

      Brat as one of 435 is going to have what impact?

      what exactly are his supporters expecting him to achieve?

  3. Ghost of Ted Dalton Avatar
    Ghost of Ted Dalton

    I think there’s some truth to what you write. However, the “truth” is this: the D.C. “culture” that you bemoan has nothing to do with “liberalism” or “cocktail parties” as “conservative lore” proclaims.

    The D.C. “culture” is dictated by Wall Street. D’s and R’s gobble up 10s of millions of dollars in contributions.

    However, I’m absolutely fine with it. I understand that a country is only as strong as its elites. Whenever the rabble are in control (be it left or right), bad things tend to happen to nations. See: Andrew Jackson’s attack on elites leading to one of the worst economic depressions in American history.

    I also understand 21st century economics. There’s simply no way for our society and economy to function without the intricate plumbing of the financial and capital markets.

    Perhaps we’ll finally get the “reckoning” that the idiots want. Perhaps we will get a Tea Party caucus that is so recalcitrant that they won’t raise the debt ceiling. And when we do, I’ll be laughing my ass off.

    The idiots may bemoan the D.C. “culture”, but it’s hard to find an American who isn’t tied to the market. Let the GOP default and watch the market crash a few thousand points in a day…..and see how it all ultimately plays out. This ain’t 1806 when Jefferson and his cronies could decry “banking” and it really only meant a tiny percentage of the population. Hell by 1816 even Madison realized the country couldn’t function without a national bank, something he had decried as “unconstitutional” up to that point.

    Let the “D.C. culture” of the strongest capital markets in the world fall……oh what a joy! The Tea Party Caucus in the House is already talking about the debt ceiling again and electing a Majority Leader who is willing to default!

    1. virginiagal2 Avatar

      IMHO there’s an awful lot of happy medium between crippling the financial markets, and turning the government function as an agency to facilitate collecting money from the general public.

      Some areas of finance are absolutely vital for the function of a modern economy. That doesn’t mean that they don’t need regulation.

      Some financial interactions don’t add value, except to those extracting the fees. Read Flash Boys for a nice example of the latter, where high speed traders basically gamed the system so they could make money without adding value or liquidity or much of anything else. Providing a house in the Hamptons to a high speed trader is not an absolute social good that should be unquestioningly funded by a pension fund.

      I think the gamesmanship over the debt ceiling is incredibly stupid and irresponsible, but I also don’t agree with the idea that elites should run things without question.

  4. chris bonney Avatar
    chris bonney

    Yes, who’d have thunk George Allen and Eric Cantor wouldn’t be conservative enough for Virginia Republicans? I’m curious, though. It doesn’t affect the outcome, of course. But do you think primary voters were voting for Brat or against Cantor?

  5. larryg Avatar

    The word is that the Cantor’s own pollsters screwed up just like the GOP pollsters screwed up with Romney.

    Dick Morris, O’Reilly and many others made complete asses of themselves
    on the polls…including those in Virginia…during the POTUS election and now Cantor with the same problem…

    He was assured he was 30 points ahead apparently.

    What the?

    I guess all things considered, the GOP is in denial on a fairly regular basis these days – about a lot of things.

    It’s pretty bad when your own people – are either lying to you or lying to themselves…

  6. […] Read more of Mr. Bacon’s article here. […]

  7. Breckinridge Avatar

    Two images from the TeeVee coverage yesterday:

    First, Eric coming into the news conference at 4:30. He’s in a Capitol briefing room. And yet he has his Phalanx of Security around him, with the lapel pin guy leading him in the door and then out again. He’s freaking inside the Capitol and he still needs us taxpayers to hire him two or three bodyguards?

    Second, the clip they used of David Brat saying “All things are possible with God.” His overt religious appeal is being ignored or downplayed, but the evangelicals have long had their own problems with Eric. And Brat apparently played the God card hard and often.

    Yes, Eric’s behavior and the choices he’s made in how to interact back in the district were the dominant problem. But the fact remains, to many of Tuesday’s voters Eric was insufficiently conservative. And that is just scary. Eric is my book was the real deal conservative, far more ideological on some issues than me. Yet he didn’t satisfy some. Wow.

    1. Neil Haner Avatar
      Neil Haner

      I actually feel a little bit bad for the Congressman. I believe he was largely done in by his own success.

      Getting promoted to the national stage, becoming a member of the House leadership team, carries with it a lot of responsibility, and forces the Representative to speak with a more measured tone.

      He’s got two very different jobs, which can’t be easy. Yes he’s tasked to Represent the 7th, and perhaps he should’ve taken that more seriously.

      But being Majority Leader, being so high profile, means an obligation to carve out time for the Donor Circuit, to spend your weekends on the Sunday Talk Shows. And it means you can’t be a firebrand, you can’t be an idealougue, because now, in addition to representing your constituency, you also repesent your caucus. And the House GOP caucus includes both the Tea Parties and the Moderates alike. He speaks for both of them, which means, no, he isn’t going to be glued to the far right of the policy slate. Sorry.

      Most districts in America would be proud of this. You don’t see voters in Ohio crowing that Mr Boehner has forgotten about them, or the constituents of Reid or Pelosi out in CA or NV whining that they’ve forgotten who voted them to DC.

      Don’t get me wrong, Mr Cantor (and/or his staff) bungled this election, there was no reason to lose other than the fact that they took Brat way too lightly, and despite a lot of serious spending, gave the campaign little serious thought.

      But I think the people of Henrico and Hanover just blew it. With Moran and Wolf retiring as well, our Commonwealth’s influence in Congress is about to nosedive.

      1. larryg Avatar

        re: ” Two images from the TeeVee coverage yesterday:

        First, Eric coming into the news conference at 4:30. He’s in a Capitol briefing room. And yet he has his Phalanx of Security around him, with the lapel pin guy leading him in the door and then out again. He’s freaking inside the Capitol and he still needs us taxpayers to hire him two or three bodyguards?”

        agree… what kind of “idiot”.

        I get Cantor’s tweets – they are similarly just inane red meat sound bites.

        “Second, the clip they used of David Brat saying “All things are possible with God.” His overt religious appeal is being ignored our downplayed, but the evangelicals has long has their own problems with Eric.

        Yes, Eric’s behavior and the choices he’s made in how to interact back in the district were the dominant problem. But the fact remains, to many of Tuesday’s voters Eric was insufficiently conservative. And that is just scary. Eric is my book was the real deal conservative, far more ideological on some issues than me. Yet he didn’t satisfy some. Wow.”

        Spotsylvania has active Tea Party folks … has voted out the current BOS and in a much more politically conservative BOS ..

        there are “Patriot” groups meeting regularly …

        yet – Cantor took most of the precincts… some by a 60-30 margin others.. much closer and lost a couple…

        Cantor, in general was competitive in the areas North and West of Hanover… Culpeper, Orange, etc.

        but in Northern Henrico, Hanover and New Kent – he got his butt handed to him.

        Also… Brat had folks like Glenn Beck and Laura Ingram campaigning for him – and we all know what constituency they cater to….

        so.. Cantor was a Washington Insider… so are a lot of other GOP including those that now speak “Tea Party”… so I’m not convinced that is the sole reason.

        I think the Tea Party was out to make an example of him… to scare the bejesus out of those who doubted the Tea Party could “primary” them.

        so .. one can never totally predict politics (look at Cantor!) – but we’ve already seen the GOP move right and this will take them further…

        and with any luck – these further right guys will have to face the general electorate and convince citizens that they want what the Tea Party is selling.

        I’m still convinced we are headed for a political world like Europe where the Conservatives themselves have split into two factions that agree on some issues and not on others.

        And it should be of note and concern to people that the killing of two policemen in Las Vegas was done by two who really took the idea of ‘watering the tree of Liberty’ to heart and I note further that Bundy has
        made a point of saying that even those guys were “too radical” for us – this coming from a guy who clearly incited an armed confrontation with the BLA…

        I really do have great concern for the country these days.

  8. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    Brat won because of the I’s and D’s that voted for him. They make up a good part of the ABC vote. Look at all of the past primary elections. If Brat does not acknowledge this, the 7th is going to turn blue.

  9. mbaldwin Avatar

    Good points by Jim. An inept Canter campaign out of touch and so forth. Then there’s the strength of the evangelicals for whom Brat’s militant yet Princeton-honed protestantism surely appealed. Quite astounding that Cantor was the only non-Christian Republican in the House, but not surprising: Here I am in the district of a State Senator who’s a fan of Assad because he protects Christians!

    Voter disenchantment with Washington, an aloof campaign, emotional fears of an unpleasant alien future, Burkean “prejudice:” at work, Brat’s fresh appeal, all spelt Canter;s loss . I see scant evidence that it came from active Is and Ds.

    1. larryg Avatar

      Cantor – on his best days was an unprincipled opportunist weasel.

      and folks figured it out, including the Tea Party.

  10. Grommet Avatar

    When your Congressman insulates himself to the point that presidents of 4 major industry groups based in VA can’t get in to see him, it’s time to go.
    The voters sensed that and sent him a reminder.

  11. democracy Avatar

    Eric Cantor got beat because the most conservative of his constituents –– who are older, whiter, more Tea Party-like, and more evangelical than typical suburban Republicans –– turned out in large numbers to vote against him.

    They turned out because Cantor is smarmy, he’s a “DC insider” and he’s well-connected to Wall Street. Maybe even because Cantor is Jewish. They turned out because Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin told them to, and all of these nut jobs are funded, in part, by Koch brothers money. Guess what? So too is Dave Brat.

    Eric Cantor was a tool. Dave Brat –– nice guy that he may well be –– is probably even worse. Brat is ardently anti-abortion. He’s a devotee of Ayn Rand (though he clams not to be). He thinks “common” anything is a very bad idea (has it not crossed his small mind that he lives in the Commonwealth of Virginia?). He’s a rigid “Christian” conservative who thinks his brand of “ethics” trumps the principles and values embedded in the Constitution. That’s quite a scary combination.

    Maybe voting for Dave Brat “sent a message.” But if so, the “message” – no matter the “populist” cloak – is inherently to continue the stupidity, mostly perpetrated by Republicans, that goes on in Washington.

    1. larryg Avatar

      Democracy is dead on in my view.

      this is almost Cucinneli-like except Brat’s views are not yet ‘out there” but
      rest assured they will be.. and I predict one of two things: 1. Brat equivocates and attempts to hide his views or 2. -he’ll man up and many will be horrified but my understanding is that the Dem nominee is WORSE!

      so here we are – once again – of choosing between two wackobirds – one left and one right.

  12. cpzilliacus Avatar

    The New Republic’s assertions about the Cantor loss: The GOP Just Got a Wake-Up Call – Eric Cantor’s loss proves the Tea Party refuses to rest in peace

    The obvious explanation for Cantor’s defeat is immigration. And in this case, the obvious explanation is probably right. Brat hammered Cantor for his supposed support of “amnesty.” Cantor swore the charge was untrue and, lord knows, he wasn’t doing anything to advance the cause of immigration reform publicly. It appears the voters didn’t believe him.

    But the Virginians who rejected Cantor may have been rejecting more than his position on immigration. Brat’s campaign portrayed Cantor as a creature of Washington and an ally of special interests, particularly those representing the financial industry. “Another power-hungry Washington insider” is how one advertisement described him.

    Paul Krugman’s (admittedly Democratic and liberal) take on Cantor’s defeat: Eric Cantor and the Death of a Movement

    How big a deal is the surprise primary defeat of Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader? Very. Movement conservatism, which dominated American politics from the election of Ronald Reagan to the election of Barack Obama — and which many pundits thought could make a comeback this year — is unraveling before our eyes.

    1. larryg Avatar

      No one should dare to believe that hard-right, anti-govt, politics is dead or even close…

      it’s been around a long time ..John Birch and the rest….and there always have been and will always be those that are at odds with government – not just here – a lot of places around the world and really a little bit of this in most all of us.

      but they don’t have enough numbers to dominate most elections – but do have enough to be effective in some races – especially when they are primaries for only one party.

      and they know it and they mobilize when there is opportunity.

      Cantor had internal polls that apparently were as much as 30% off but sometimes polls do not elicit fully truthful responses from those who would vote… as Karl Rove and Dick Morris found out.

      Immigration may have had a role but my perception of those who claim to be libertarians is that they eschew government being involved in individual opportunity of people – who are said to have “natural rights”.

      so Brat is not really a libertarian in my view.. he’s wearing the clothes but it’s cloaking what”s underneath.

      He did have major tea party support presumably because because folks think he’s of the Ted Cruz school of politics.

      Will Congress… little by little become more and more populated by Ted Cruz types?

      we’ll see…

      by the way: Ted Cruz on Immigration:


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