The high point of David Brat’s shoestring campaign came a week before Tuesday’s election, at the Dominion Club in Glen Allen, Va. House majority leader Eric Cantor is a member of the club — a place, its website says, where “you and your family can experience a vacation every day of the year.” It is located just blocks away from Cantor’s home. Brat had arrived to campaign against the House majority leader, and he had a high-profile rabble-rouser in tow.
“I thought, I’m just going to do one more push for him at the end,” says Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio-talk-show host who for months now has used her nationally syndicated program, The Laura Ingraham Show, to promote the economics professor. “We just decided we were going to be really bold.”
Bold they were. At the country-club rally near Cantor’s home, Ingraham floated a proposal. “I was thinking about this prisoner swap,” she told the crowd of over 600. “I kind of wish that President Obama would have thought this through a little bit more. Instead of sending five Taliban MVPs over there, he could have just traded one Eric Cantor.”
Cantor won’t wind up in Afghanistan, but Brat’s shocking upset on Tuesday will send him packing come January. Brat himself is now among a small group who, like former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who have managed to pull off historic political upsets.
It is as much a victory for conservative media — voices like Ingraham, her fellow radio-talk-show host Mark Levin, columnist Ann Coulter, and Internet provocateur Matt Drudge — as it is for Brat. Although national tea-party groups were quick to claim credit for the turn of events (Tea Party Patriots president Jenny Beth Martin congratulated the “local tea-party activists who helped propel him over the top”), they did little to boost his candidacy. It was conservative-media figures, Ingraham chief among them, who helped amplify his message beyond what his limited campaign budget allowed.
“National tea-party groups were either not present or silent,” Ingraham says. Having supported Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell against attacks from the right, Ingraham is not your typical tea partier. In this case, she credits grassroots activists for doing the campaign’s heavy lifting without an organized infusion of outside tea-party funds.
After hearing about Brat through friends in Richmond — she is a graduate of the University of Virginia law school — Ingraham spoke with him by phone several months ago. Though his campaign had attracted little support and even less media attention, she found him, she says, “really smart, really dedicated, and really courageous.” She began putting him on the air. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, somebody without any political experience trying to take on Cantor and he’s just completely unafraid.’ It was something to see.”
“I decided, ‘Look, if we’re ever going to get any good people to challenge the failed establishment, we’re going to at least need to give them a platform and a fair hearing,’” she says, “so I helped give him a platform and a bigger microphone.”
It was the issue of immigration in particular that drew her into the race against Cantor. Ingraham was a vocal opponent of the 2007 immigration-reform proposal supported by President George W. Bush and, since Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, she has again used her radio show to rally conservatives against any legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally.
She railed against the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive bill, which passed the Senate in April of last year, and then sought to prevent the House from taking it up by extracting concessions from the lawmakers who appeared on her show. “Will you go to conference on immigration, yes or no?” she routinely asked Republican congressmen who joined her on the air.
With the midterm elections in sight, she has pushed GOP candidates to sign a pledge circulated by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group devoted to opposing illegal immigration and limiting legal immigration to the U.S.
The vast majority of Republicans are treating Obamacare as the dominant issue of the midterm election, but Ingraham has framed matters differently, arguing that immigration is the most important issue facing Americans today. “If conservatives go the wrong way on this issue,” she says, “all the other issues that we care about are academic.”
Brat’s surprise victory suggests that it can also be a potent political weapon. On the campaign trail, he told voters that a vote for Cantor was a vote for amnesty and open borders. Ingraham and Levin used their microphones to promote his candidacy and to blast Cantor, who since February of last year has openly supported an unspecified version of the DREAM Act, which would legalize those who entered the country illegally as children. “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home,” Cantor said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. In her endorsement of Brat, Ann Coulter denounced Cantor as a “maniacal amnesty supporter.” Levin celebrated Brat’s “ass-kicking” victory and denounced members of the Republican leadership as “paper tigers.”
Ingraham’s focus on immigration is a part of a larger attempt to push the party toward an embrace of economic populism. She refers to immigration as a “vessel” that has an impact on other issues like wages and health care, and says that proponents of immigration reform from the business-friendly Chamber of Commerce to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg simply don’t grasp the needs and interests of working-class Republicans. “The GOP has to be known as the party of the working people,” she says. “Black, white, Asian, single women. We care about their standard of living going down. And if it means throwing a House majority leader out of office, then we’ll do that.”
It worked: Though rumors were circulating as recently as yesterday that House Republicans were preparing to take up immigration reform once again, Brat’s victory has political analysts on both left and right declaring it dead on arrival.
Now Ingraham is setting her sights on 2016: In particular, she wants to ensure that the Republican nominee is not cut from Cantor’s cloth. Brat’s victory, she says, is a step in the right direction: “Everybody that’s hoping and praying for a Jeb Bush run, they should spend a lot of time focusing on what just happened in Virginia.”
— Eliana Johnson is a political reporter for National Review Online.