As Jonah Goldberg, John Fund, and Erick Erickson have observed, a number of factors led to Dave Brat’s victory over Eric Cantor on Tuesday. Much of the reporting and analysis of yesterday’s primary has understandably focused on immigration’s role in the race, but it is also important to pay attention to the broader context of immigration for this race and the GOP as a whole.
Skeptics about the mass legalization of illegal immigrants and expanded guest-worker programs played a key role in propelling Brat to victory. If Cantor had not been tied down by House leadership immigration principles and some of his own statements and if Brat had not run hard against Cantor on immigration, last night’s primary could very easily have been a blip on the political radar: Republican leader beats upstart challenger. Just as the debate about Obamacare made Scott Brown’s victory possible in 2010, controversies over immigration policy probably made Brat’s victory possible last night.
But possibility is not certainty, and opposition to “amnesty” alone did not guarantee Brat’s victory. Brat made a broader case that used opposition to Cantor on immigration as a policy centerpiece. His campaign did not solely consist of frothing denunciations of “amnesty.”
Instead, he argued that Cantor’s position on immigration was representative of an agenda that would lower American wages, pervert the free market, and undermine the rule of law. Brat wove opposition to mass legalization and expanded guest-worker programs into a broader narrative of defending the middle class, restoring opportunity, and advancing the cause of economic liberty (which is deeply connected, according to Brat, to the rule of law).
Brat’s interview with Sean Hannity last night is instructive here. Brat argued that free markets and the rule of law fueled American prosperity. He said the GOP needed to focus more on “Main Street” and less on “Wall Street” and warned about government intervention into the marketplace on behalf of powerful interests.
To echo a point Bill Kristol raised earlier today: Brat’s victory has larger implications for those Republicans and conservatives hoping to reinvigorate the GOP. By making opposition to the White House’s immigration agenda part of a broader narrative about defending the middle class and advancing freedom, Brat was able to build a grassroots movement into a winning coalition. Many proponents of Republican reform have been very skeptical about what the Beltway calls “comprehensive immigration reform” (i.e., bad-faith open borders) because they fear that this set of policies undermines the average American worker, damages economic opportunity, and harms the civic fabric of the nation.
Far from a defeat for conservative reformers (as some have alleged), Brat’s victory could instead be seen as a sign of the growing viability of a conservatism that synthesizes beliefs in decentralized power, economic opportunity and growth, middle-class uplift, the rule of law, the protection of civil liberties, and a strong national defense.