Candidate Dave Brat, economist and ex-seminarian, shakes up Washington

Candidate Dave Brat, economist and ex-seminarian, shakes up Washington
Dave Brat, with wife Laura, addresses supporters after defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday night. (P. Kevin Morley / Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Dana Moriconi had supported Eric Cantor for years, largely without reservation. The retired 59-year-old and her husband had even hosted events for the Virginia congressman, and saw him rise to become the second-most powerful Republican in the House.

But on Wednesday she reported again for a shift at the campaign headquarters for Dave Brat, the local economics professor whose upset over the House majority leader had confounded just about everyone in Washington and sparked new debate over the course of the GOP.


For Moriconi, her change in loyalties had less to do with policy than with her fundamental view of what a public servant should be about.

"Cantor was good for a while," Moriconi said. But, she added, "term limits need to be enacted. It becomes a career move rather than what people need or want."

Though Washington was seeking to draw lessons of national import from a bitter campaign, the sense that Cantor had become disconnected from the constituents he'd represented for more than 13 years was the dominant view of Brat supporters who streamed in and out of his headquarters Wednesday.

Perhaps a fitting illustration of that is the fact that Cantor's own campaign office wasn't located in the district. His longtime political advisor ran the campaign out of office space for his firm in the Reagan Building on Richmond's Main Street, where there were materials for other campaigns alongside the "Cantor for Congress" signs.

Brat, 49, is a former seminary student turned PhD economist who used both backgrounds to his advantage in the campaign. An economics professor for nearly two decades at the small Randolph-Macon College, he pounded Cantor on economic issues and vowed to support a balanced-budget amendment, term limits and a flat or "fair tax."

"I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers," he said in an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch published the week before the vote.

Brat, a Roman Catholic, frequently invoked his faith during the campaign. Cantor is the lone Jewish Republican in the House.

In an interview with a conservative blog in January, Brat said he "felt called to seminary," and had intended to teach systematic theology and moral philosophy. But he "got the itch" for politics during a semester in Washington with Wesley Theological Seminary.

Former Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, said Cantor faced a unique dilemma in the race as a member of House leadership.

"The bigger factor I think in this race was not the fact that he lost tea party voters — I think everyone knew that was going to happen," he said. "I think there were just a lot of traditional Republicans out there who have grown so frustrated with Washington or with the Congress, and fairly or unfairly Eric was the recipient of that frustration."

Bolling credited Brat with running a strong campaign that captured the conservative base's frustration with establishment leaders. But he said Brat had not always positioned himself on the right of the party, and actually once worked for a Republican state senator considered to be one of the body's more moderate members.

"He never struck me as a tea party guy," Bolling said. "I think he might have seen an opportunity here to play a role."

Brat's victory was without precedent. No majority leader has ever been unseated in a primary since the position was created in 1899. Not even the most astute political observer truly expected the seven-term incumbent to lose the primary race, especially not after he'd outspent his rival nearly 40 to 1. An internal poll conducted by Team Cantor in late May had the incumbent leading 62% to 28%.

The Brat campaign was run by a 23-year-old political novice armed with a Wal-Mart flip phone. "The cheapest one I could find," said campaign manager Zachary Werrell. He had but one paid assistant.


Cantor publicly projected confidence, but he was running in some new territory because of redistricting in 2010, in a district that stretches west and north from Richmond toward some exurban counties west of Washington.

The state Legislature, with his support, had added some more heavily Republican areas to his district, and it was those areas where Brat won by some of his largest margins.

Werrell said he first had a glimmer they had a chance when the GOP leader greeted Brat's entry into the race in January with a sledgehammer response: declaring him a liberal protege of the state's previous Democratic governor, Tim Kaine. And the attacks only intensified.

In April, Cantor began an advertising campaign that dubbed his rival a "liberal professor" and questioned his role on a large advisory board for Kaine when the governor raised taxes in the state.

In May, he sent direct-mail pieces touting his opposition to the "Obama-Reid amnesty plan," a sign of the potency of Brat's attacks on Cantor for supporting legal status for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.

It may have backfired.

"It wasn't the kind of challenge that needed to be smothered," said a Virginia Republican strategist unaffiliated with either campaign, who requested anonymity to discuss the outcome candidly. "The fact is that in this district people didn't know who David Brat was. This was not a viable challenge until the Cantor people elevated it themselves.

"I think this one tactical decision played a larger role in the overall outcome than a lot of people think."