David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., has just taught Washington — and one of its most powerful leaders — a lesson in humility.
Brat was dismissed by many Republicans inside the Beltway and beyond. They saw an upstart without the brawn, dollars or organization to depose the second-most-powerful man in the House.
He did it by casting himself to the right of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on immigration and the Affordable Care Act — and, more important, by giving pumped-up primary voters and conservative talkers, including Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, an opportunity to make an anti-establishment statement. Last month, Brat's tea party supporters booed Cantor at a key party meeting in his district. On Tuesday night, about 200 of them erupted in joy at a nondescript building in an office park..
It was originally billed as a thank-you party for volunteers. But this was victory.
Brat sounded every bit the professor as he addressed his stunned supporters Tuesday night. "The 10th Amendment is the big one; the Constitution has enumerated powers belonging to the federal government. All the rest of the powers belong to the states and the people," he said, getting huge applause.
Laurie and Gregg Kalata of Midlothian, Va., were sitting on their couch in their pajamas after working the polls all day. When they realized Brat had pulled it off, they got up and came to the party.
"He won because people don't want illegal immigration," Laurie Kalata said.
"This was not a tea party election. This was a conservative Republicans' vote," said Gregg Kalata, who wore a homemade sign that read "7th District GOP voters can't trust Eric Cantor."
Like many candidates running long-shot races before him, Brat had spoken on the trail of a sense of momentum. That's what candidates say.
"It's getting exciting — and I'm not BS-ing you," Brat said in an interview last month. "This district is conservative and idiosyncratic, and they're not overwhelmed by the establishment and their millions. It's David vs. Rome."
Unlike most similar seekers, he was right. Rome lost.
Brat, who is 49 and married with two teenage children, was massively outraised. He had raised only about $206,000 through the middle of May; Cantor had piled up $5.4 million.
Brat has a prominent photograph of Cantor standing beside President Obama on his website to embody his message that Cantor hadn't fought Obama's agenda hard enough. He summarized his own bid in a Twitter bio: "I am running for Congress to be ERIC CANTOR'S TERM LIMIT. Free Markets, Constitution, Liberty. No more Crony Capitalism!"
Larry Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, said Brat's campaign grew from a dinner Nordvig had with filmmaker Ronald Maxwell, who directed the Civil War epic Gettysburg. They were hashing over ideas for good candidates to challenge Cantor.
Nordvig saw Brat speak at a fundraiser. "I asked him 45 minutes of questions afterward . . . about what would he do about deficit spending, what would he do about Obamacare, what would he do about amnesty . . . and he gave very satisfactory answers," said Nordvig, who described Brat as "presidential-looking" — important in an era of televised campaigns. "Between his appearance and his bearing and his answers to tough questions, I knew we had the right man for the job."
On Fox News after the victory, Brat said: "I was blessed. I mean, it's a miracle. . . . God acts through people. And God acted through the people."
Brat also cited immigration as a difference-maker in the campaign, saying politicians are beholden to the Chamber of Commerce. "They want cheap labor, and that's going to lower wages for everybody else," he said.
Brat has long reveled in poking the establishment, talking up battles against the "intellectual elite" while at Princeton, where he earned a master's degree in divinity, and against "the powerful elite" at American University, where he received his Ph.D. in economics.