How a Tea Party Brat brought down a divided House

“This country needs to get back to the way it was.” That was 60-year-old David Moffett telling a New York Times reporter why he voted for David Brat, the giant killer who brought down House Majority leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary. With nearly all the votes counted, Brat had 56 per cent to Cantor’s 44.
Times reporter Trip Gabriel was a stickler for detail, telling us that Moffett was shopping for milk, salad, chicken and potatoes in Glen Falls, Virginia at the time, and said: “People are sick and tired of him — sick and tired of the way government is nowadays.”
It sounded like a classic Tea Party reaction to a Republican leader who was partial to allowing unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border to stay in the US, while publicly taking a tough stance on immigration. That convinced his constituents that he was just another politician. One of them, a retired handyman, Malcolm Spencer, told Gabriel: “I don’t think people coming into the country illegally should be granted a free pass and we the taxpayers pay for it.”
The Brat campaign, of course, portrayed Cantor as being hypocritical, and Tea Party supporters knocked on doors and made phone calls, spreading the word. The Cantor campaign raised about $5.4 million compared to $231,000 for David Brat, an economics professor at a local college (Photo above P. Kevin Morley, Richmond Times-Dispatch). It was one of the biggest upsets in US political history – no sitting House majority leader has lost since the position was created in 1899.
A Virginia legislator who worked with Professor Brat on State budget issues at Randolph Macon College, Christopher Peace, told the NY Times’ Jennifer Steinhauer: “I don’t think even he expected to win.” Brat, like many American politicians, is religious. He has a Master’s in divinity from the Princeton Theological Seminary and a PhD in economics from American University. Christianity plays an important part in his writings, including his thesis, “Human Capital, Religion and Economic Growth” and a presentation to the Virginia Association of Community Banks titled: “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism, From the Great Generation to Financial Crisis … What Went Wrong?”
Apparently, this religious theme does not extend to his supporters, some of whom are, apparently, brats (I had to use that somewhere). As Amanda Terkel reported in the Huffington Post: “Brat had a loud, committed following on the campaign trail, generating an intensity that Cantor failed to muster. During a local GOP convention last month, Brat backers loudly booed Cantor in front of his family.” The boos erupted because Cantor had dared to claim Brat had used “inaccuracies” in his campaign.
Cantor (photo above, Steve Helber, AP), who was tipped to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House, resigned as majority leader, effective on July 31, as the Republicans tried to stop a struggle within the party over the leadership. Like many political losers, Cantor gave an eloquent concession speech, and spoke about how his Jewish faith helped him in difficult times. Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times reports: “In announcing his decision to step down, he told his colleagues of a Holocaust survivor he met who put political travails in perspective. He told reporters that in his religious studies, ‘you learn a lot about individual setbacks. You also learn each setback is an opportunity and there’s always optimism for the future’.”
Until yesterday, the Tea Party’s influence had been waning after a series of losses in high-profile primaries, including Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky. The Democrats are now worried the arch-conservatives will make it even more difficult for President Obama in upcoming mid-term elections. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) sent out emails to their supporters (declaration: I am a supporter), saying: “Talking heads like (conservative columnist) Ann Coulter are already gloating over the Tea Party’s shocking victory last night. They claim the Tea Party is resurgent. They’re predicting that right-wing Republican extremists will wipe out Democrats this fall, and wreck President Obama’s agenda. (But) they’re flat-out WRONG. We’re building a national grassroots movement, the likes of which Republicans have never seen. And we WON’T let the Tea Party take out our Democratic candidates with ugly attacks.”
But it’s obvious that Barack Obama’s agenda, already under threat, will be under attack as never before. With only two and a half years left in the Obama presidency, a poor result in the mid-terms could spell disaster. The Democrats do have a chance, though, with their grassroots campaign, raising funds by asking supporters to contribute as little as $3 each. But, as David Brat has demonstrated, money doesn’t always win elections. The Democrats need to have thousands of door knockers and phone callers to make it work. They had that in 2008, and, to a lesser degree, in 2012 to help Barack Obama to two terms in the White House. This could be the summer of campaigning dangerously.
In one of their first statements on the primary, it was clear the Democratic National Committee was going on the attack and would portray the November election for Cantor’s seat as a race between a traditional Democratic candidate and a Far-Right Tea Partyer. DNC Chair and Florida Member of Congress, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, said: “When Eric Cantor, who time and again has blocked common sense legislation to grow the middle class, can’t earn the Republican nomination, it’s clear the GOP has redefined ‘far right.’ Democrats on the other hand have nominated a mainstream candidate who will proudly represent this district and I look forward to his victory in November.” Brat’s Democratic opponent in November will be Jack Trammell, like Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College. He’s also a political novice, the author of 20 books, who lives on the family farm with his wife and seven children, and teaches disability studies at the college. Brat lives outside Richmond, with his wife and two children, and helps run the Ethics Bowl, a competitive debate team, where he often banters with the team’s other adviser, a liberal professor. A student on the team told Jennifer Steinhauer Brat has a sense of humour. He’ll need it. It should be an interesting campaign, with the result certain to be far from academic.
By then, the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton may be getting ready to announce her run for the presidency, the Republicans might have decided who their candidate might be (Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz spring to mind; Chris Christie blew it), and the Tea Party might have found someone as far right as Genghis Khan.
No matter what happens this November, the presidential election in November 2016 should prove to be one of the most fascinating contests in US history, especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ nominee. Will her campaign slogan and song be: “You’ve come a long way, Baby?”

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