Elections

In Virginia, Dave Brat Runs for His District and against National Pundits

Rep. Dave Brat at a town hall meeting in Midlothian, Va., May 9, 2017. (Chet Strange/Reuters)
He may be cast as an anti-establishment firebrand, but his philosophy is classical liberalism.

At a town hall last year in Blackstone, Va., congressman Dave Brat, representing that state’s seventh district, couldn’t get a word in edgewise. A comment about the importance of economic growth was met with jeers from the crowd of mostly women, many of whom were waving red rectangles of construction paper they had brought for the occasion. The town hall was one of many across the country that spring at which Republican congressmen were met with an angry reception, but Brat’s drew national attention. The congressman who had three years prior defeated House majority leader Eric Cantor on the back of a voter revolt was now confronting his own. The rebel had become The Man.

It was a seductive narrative — could the man whose rise marked the bridge between the Tea Party and the Trump Era be done in by a burgeoning movement of suburban women fed up with the GOP? — but it may well have been premature. In his reelection campaign against former CIA agent and Democratic candidate Abigail Spanberger, Brat is the favorite, albeit a slight one. The district still tilts Republican — GOP candidate Ed Gillespie won there by a 51–47 margin in the 2017 gubernatorial race he lost decisively — and no polls have given Spanberger a lead. “I’ve had about 500 constituent meetings this cycle,” the congressman points out. “In my big race, I was supposedly down 30.” He isn’t panicking.

Nationally speaking, Dave Brat is invoked not so much for his activity in Congress as for his June 11, 2014, victory. When Brat defeated Cantor, establishment incarnate, he did so with several speeches held around the district, denunciations of Cantor’s ensconcement in the D.C. business and lobbying circuit, and boosts from Breitbart, Laura Ingraham, and local talk-show hosts. He was said to have “upended” the Republican party, which at that point was still mulling the idea that embracing comprehensive immigration reform was the best way to improve its electoral prospects. He started to teach the GOP a lesson it didn’t fully learn until Trump commandeered the party two years later.

But to hear him tell it, his victory was simply a win for a brand of conservatism that is animated by the country’s founding principles: “If I look it up in Webster’s, what does ‘right-wing populist’ mean? If what it means is that I’m a classical liberal who follows Milton Friedman, James Madison, and Adam Smith, and that the only problem I have with my party is that we don’t follow our own platform and keep the promises we make . . .” He digresses. “The term is not useful in many respects.”

Brat’s victory may have reflected some level of anger with the national GOP, but his victory was equally a local phenomenon. Not quite a tea-partier and not quite a populist, Brat had been a professor of economics at Randolph-Macon College for 18 years before running for Congress. He had deep knowledge of the district that Cantor had neglected, and worked plenty of personal connections to win by double digits despite being massively outspent. He toured, and still tours, suburban Virginia tirelessly.

At the time, he criticized Cantor’s weakness on immigration but also repeatedly held forth on the deep ties between America’s traditionally religious character and its classical liberalism. He’s seen a certain vindication as his approach to immigration has become the GOP consensus, and his broader message remains consistent. “Economics and ethics is the thesis statement,” he tells National Review. At speeches and fundraisers in his district, as well as in closed-door interviews in his D.C. office, Brat totes a poster that reads “The Republican Creed of Virginia.” It’s boilerplate — replete with references to the free-enterprise system, the importance of fiscal responsibility and a strong defense, and faith in God — but he takes it to heart, which sets him apart from some Republicans in the state and national party alike.

He is no culture-war rabble-rouser like Corey Stewart, and he’s as unafraid to disagree with GOP leadership as he was back in 2014. When we spoke, his office had just released a statement criticizing a spending hike he had voted against. Months before, he criticized the discretionary-spending hikes in the omnibus bill on which he had also voted No. “Not enough representatives are doing that,” he says. “When you say ‘Eat your spinach,’ that’s not a popular thing, even though it’s what we should do, because $21 trillion is an intergenerational debt that we have to address.”

Brat, along with a handful of other members of the House Freedom Caucus, has continued to criticize the GOP on conservative lines, especially for its unwillingness to cut spending or reform entitlements. Deficit hawkishness in the era of Trump, whose stated unwillingness to cut health-care entitlements set him apart in the 2016 primary, is a decreasingly popular position. Brat voted for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, dubiously insisting like other Republicans that the bill would pay for itself, but otherwise he has remained resolute.

Since taking office, Brat has adapted his sometimes-abstract priorities — in our interview he references Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, whose books sit on his shelves, and muses about the Treaty of Westphalia — to try and meet the needs of his district, and he cites the importance of representatives putting the interests of their localities first. He cosponsored a bill just signed into law that shores up resources for early-childhood and education programs to combat the opioid crisis. He sits on the education committee and points to measures the House has taken to improve access to technical-skills education. “But most of that happens on the local and state side, and there’s bureaucratic sclerosis that the Democrats own across the country,” he says. And then: “This should be bipartisan.”

Nobody will confuse Brat for a Democrat, and in a state where Trump’s approval is well underwater, that is making his race more competitive than he’d presumably like. A New York Times/Siena poll from September put him up four points; a Monmouth poll in September had him and Spanberger tied. But after the debate between the two candidates, Trump’s approval rating rose, perhaps indicating a Brat boost.

The former CIA operative has no political experience, but “somehow,” Brat says, “she’s getting millions of dollars out of thin air.” This is proof for Brat that Spanberger has “associations with the establishment side.” She might seem an attractive candidate for a party counting on suburban women to turn out in large numbers in districts like Virginia’s seventh, but a scandal involving Spanberger’s past employment at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Va., which Chuck Schumer once called a “breeding ground for anti-American sentiment,” has dogged her campaign. Her proposals come mostly from the party playbook; tellingly, though, she says she’ll work with the GOP on immigration. The two have sparred over health care: Brat says she supports Medicare for All, Spanberger says Brat wants to gut protections for people with preexisting conditions. But the heart of Brat’s message is clear: “Who’s the outsider?”

Who indeed. Brat’s message that “the elites have taken over” and his recognition that support for both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump was driven by similar impulses certainly puts him outside the now-battered neoliberal consensus of the 1990s and 2000s. His steadfast calls to reduce the national debt increasingly put him outside the GOP. His focus on frequently ignored principles such as localism and the constitutional role of a representative put him outside the norm of contemporary American politics. But Spanberger’s party insists that Democrats in districts like this one, currently outside the halls of power, are ordained to deliver ordinary people from the yoke of Republican rule.

The race in Virginia’s seventh won’t settle any of this. What it will settle is who voters in Orange, Culpeper, Goochland, Louisa, Nottoway, Amelia, Powhatan, and Henrico Counties — voters who pay attention in varying degrees to local, state, and national matters — want to be their representative. And that’s the way Dave Brat, who is more interested in the interests of suburban Virginia and The Federalist Papers than in glib statements about the populist moment or the blue wave, likes it.

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