The DC-insider storyline about this being a great year for the Republican establishment is undergoing a rapid rewrite. For the first time since the post was formally established in 1899, a House majority leader has been defeated in a bid for renomination. And as political prognosticators, Republican stalwarts and savvy Democrats search for explanations, they are being forced to consider complexities they had not previously entertained—including the prospect of conservatives who are ready and willing to criticize big business.
Eric Cantor, the face of the GOP establishment, one of the party’s most prodigious fundraisers and the odds-on favorite to become the next speaker of the House, lost his Virginia Republican primary Tuesday to a challenger who promised, “I will fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.”
The result shocked the not just the Republican establishment but the DC establishment. The shockwaves continued Wednesday, as Republican aides said Cantor would step down July 31 from his position as the second most powerful figure in the House—ending the congressman’s run as a Washington power player who championed the interests of Wall Street and corporate America.
That Wall Street connection was a central theme of the challenge that displaced Cantor.
Dave Brat, who defeated the number-two Republican in the House by a 56-44 margin, tore into big business almost as frequently as he did the incumbent. “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,” declared the challenger.
Cantor dismissed Brat as a “liberal college professor.”
That was false—at least the liberal part.
Though Brat is a professor who teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, he is definitely not a liberal. He ran to the right of Cantor on the issues; he outlined the premises of his campaign in an extended interview with the conservative National Review; and he announced on his Facebook page, “It’s time we elect a conservative, not just a Republican, to represent us.”
But Brat’s low-budget campaign came with a twist. He ran as something rare in American politics—so rare that many political commentators have a hard time comprehending the calculus. On a number of issues, the challenger positioned himself as an anti-corporate conservative. Indeed, as Politico noted during the course of the campaign, “The central theme of Brat’s campaign is that Cantor is beholden to business—specifically the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.”
That does not make Brat any sort of progressive, or even a populist by most contemporary measures; nor does it make his harsh right-wing positions on a number of issues any more noble than those same positions when they are taken by Republicans who regularly pocket checks from Wall Street interests. Brat has some ties to wealthy libertarians, and he’s written about “the moral foundations in Ayn Rand”—even if he “says…he isn’t a Randian.”
Yet Brat’s anti-corporate rhetoric distinguished him from Cantor, and from most prominent Republicans—whether they identify with the Republican “establishment” or the Tea Party wing of a party that in recent years has been defined by its subservience to corporate interests.
From the start of the campaign, Brat was aggressive in his opposition to immigration reform—attacking Cantor for making tepid attempts to move the GOP toward a more moderate position on the issue. But even Brat’s crude campaigning on immigration came with an anti-corporate twist. “Eric Cantor doesn’t represent you, he represents large corporations seeking a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor,” the challenger argued.
Because Brat highlighted immigration policy as part of the campaign that upset Cantor, it is likely that Republican leaders will move toward an even sharper stance in opposition to meaningful reform. That likelihood led Dream Act Coalition co-director Cesar Vargas to say that with Cantor’s defeat—after being attacked as “too soft on immigration”—“there is no chance of getting anything done legislatively on the subject through the summer, after which it would be difficult to get anything done with presidential speculation beginning.”
Vargas argues that instead of offering House Republicans more time to act on immigration reform, the president “should offer deportation relief, and other forms of administrative relief, now.”
That’s an insightful response to the Cantor defeat. Americans are ready for immigration reform—polls suggest that more than two-thirds of Americans support a pathway to citizenship and reject mass deportation. A new Public Policy Polling survey, conducted Tuesday night in Cantor’s district, concludes that “72 percent of voters in Cantor’s district support the bipartisan immigration reform legislation on the table in Washington right now to only 23 percent who are opposed.”
It may be that hard-core Republican primary voters, particularly in Southern states where primary turnout is usually very low, will continue to threaten GOP members of the House and Senate who display even the slightest moderation on the issue. But the PPP data suggests that wasn’t the only factor in Cantor’s defeat. Indeed, recent polling by PPP and other firms suggests that the Obama White House and congressional Democrats would be unwise to imagine that a Virginia Republican primary result argues for an abandonment of immigration reform.
Are there other insights to be taken from Brat’s defeat of Cantor?
Perhaps. And they could have implications for the broader politics of 2014 and 2016.
Brat, whose campaign raised and spent roughly $200,000 versus Cantor’s $5 million campaign, attracted grassroots Tea Party support. But the professor actually missed meetings with top national conservatives that had been organized in Washington for mid-May—with the campaign explaining that Brat had to focus on preparations for final exams.
His distance from the national conservative establishment, much of which aligns with the same business interests as the Republican establishment, was evident in Brat’s harshest criticism of Cantor.
“In my view, the greatest moral failure—which disqualifies Cantor for high public office—was his abuse of the public trust concerning the STOCK Act, a bipartisan bill that was going through after the financial crisis,” the professor wrote in a pre-election article for the opinion pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the dominant newspaper in the region. “The Stock Act,” noted Brat, “was intended to ban insider trading on congressional knowledge for congressmen and their families. CNN discovered that Cantor altered the language of the House version in order to allow family members and spouses to continue insider trading on congressional knowledge. In my view, this action was beneath the dignity of the office. Virginians deserve better and I pledge to treat everyone equally under the law.”
Brat is so little known at this point that it is hard to say where he will end up politically. He’ll face a solid Democrat in November—fellow Randolph-Macon College professor Jack Trammell—but his chances of winning the November election in an overwhelmingly Republican district are good.
If Brat does go to Congress as a conservative critic of big business, and of the GOP’s alliance with corporate interests, he could open up a lot of new debates within the party, and beyond its boundaries. On election night, he was telling Fox News, “The issue is the Republican Party has been paying way too much attention to Wall Street and not enough to Main Street.” He spoke of “a fissure between Main Street and Wall Street,” arguing that Republican leaders had forgotten that, “Dollars dont vote, people do.”
That language suggests Brat could align with others, such as North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., an old-right conservative, and Michigan’s Justin Amash, a younger libertarian-leaning member, who have run afoul of Republican leaders—including Cantor.
Both Jones and Amash have reached across party lines and worked with progressive Democrats on a host of issues, including efforts to restrict NSA surveillance, to block free-trade deals and even (in Jones’s case) to amend the US Constitution to get corporate cash out of politics.
After his victory, Brat told interviews, “Our founding was built by people who were political philosophers, and we need to get back to that, away from this kind of cheap political rhetoric of right and left.”
On at least one issue, privacy rights, Brat seems to be very much in agreement with Amash and Jones—and progressives such as Congressman John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who has worked with Amash to address NSA abuses. The Virginian’s issue primer declares, “Dave believes that the Constitution does not need to be compromised for matters of national security. He supports the end of bulk phone and email data collection by the NSA, IRS, or any other branch of government.”
In his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (Nation Books), Ralph Nader argues that there are many issues on which an anti-corporate left and an anti-corporate right could achieve “convergence” in opposition to policies advanced by “corporate conservatives and corporate liberals.” Nader’s point is not to suggest that the left and the right will be in specific agreement on issues ranging from fair trade to restricting domestic surveillance to whittling down the military-industrial complex. He suggests that “they [can] come at it for different reasons, but they [can] have the same conclusion.”
That’s an intriguing notion, especially after one of the most powerful corporate Republicans in Washington just lost to a guy who decries “large corporations seeking insider deals” and “crony bailouts.”
Read Next: George Zornick on why Eric Cantor’s defeat may doom chances for immigration reform.