Congratulations, David Brat: Your Win over Eric Cantor is Totally Meaningless
David Brat ran against Eric Cantor as the epitome of everything that's wrong with Washington. It wasn't a bad synecdoche; like the city, Cantor exuded southern efficiency and northern charm. By the standards of the Tea Party, however, Cantor simply wasn't inefficient enough. They would like less done, please.
On the other hand, Cantor's lack of personal charm probably didn't mean much in terms of the race – though you can see how years of terse brush-offs to reporters has already given the coverage a particularly giddy aftertaste. (See: "DC is running out of champagne".) Neither the left nor right will miss Cantor much, even if David Brat might. The Randolph-Macon College economics professor will never be more important to the Washington political class than he is right now, afterdefeating the House majority leader by double digits in their primary on Tuesday night.
In other words, Professor Brat, I have some bad news: it's all downhill from here. At least for you, personally. You are neither the death knell for immigration reform nor the prime mover of the GOP agenda. You are the victor in a 65,008-person vote that came down to rural Virginia. And your legacy as a harbinger of things to come is even more in doubt: there is no clean Tea Party electoral narrative at this point in the midterms – only Beltway political journalists believe in clean narratives anyway.
But as Cantor's vanquisher, Brat nonetheless became an overnight symbol for Tea Party and its future. News that Cantor spent over $150,000 at steakhouses during the campaign had to be squared with having failed to serve up sufficiently red meat. And the March Madness-level magnitude of the upset gave the coverage an hysterical edge. Both left and right raced to be the side most please by the outcome. (Indeed, any more Tea Party upsets and this might be the election cycle when I finally learn to spell schadenfreude.)
So on the morning after, Brat is either the Tea Party's white knight or its motley fool – at centerstage if also at the edge of the political spectrum.
But come the fall, Brat may be an historical footnote, having beaten the first sitting majority leader since the position was created in 1899, only to have gone on to lose the general election. (Which is unlikely when running against a Democratic slave-trade / disabilities / vampire scholar in one of Virginia's most conservative districts, but possible, especially given how wrong all the primary polling was, by a clean 34 points or so.) Or Brat will be one of dozens of incoming freshmen Congressmen … which is to say, an historical footnote in the making.
Congressional seats are not made of Valyrian steel; they do not remain powerful no matter who holds them. When he leaves the House, Cantor will take much of his influence with him – probably straight to K Street, where he arguably can hold more sway over national policy as a lobbyist than he ever could as a representative from Virginia.
Brat will have to build his political capital from zero: as an economist, he probably has a better understanding than most of us about just how difficult that is. As an economist and paid follower of Ayn Rand, he will face the added difficulty of not being a very good economist.
What's more, the flukish nature of the win – even if he wins that general election by a landslide – sets up Brat for a primary challenge of his own.As a $200,000 dark horse against the $5.4m man, he was able to avoid the gauntlet of both media and donor cross-examination (and he missed two meetings with high-level conservatives because of finals). Progressives' hopefulness about his inexperience leading to politically-profitable gaffes seems well-founded; on election night, he told Sean Hannity, "Just look at my biography. There's nothing hard right or far right about anything," which suggests a potentially dangerous lack of self-awareness.
If nothing else, Brat's candidacy was boosted by the belligerently hyperbolic Laura Ingraham, whose quotes are the stuff that Media Matters dreams are made of. (In one Brat testimonial during the homestretch, the conservative host asserted that Obama should have traded Cantor for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.) A well-funded, well-vetted challenger who might come with Tea Party approval but establishment money would take Brat out of Congress and back to the classroom.
But this country continues to be bafflingly diverse. And voters, over and over, respond to the specific candidates in their specific elections in those specific circumstances. Eric Cantor lost. The same night, fellow immigration squish and (not-fellow) climate change believer Senator Lindsey Graham faced six (six!) Tea Party challengers and beat them with room to spare.
To find the Tea Party throughline in this election cycle, you have to look past the ballot counts and toward the policies – the radicalism of which the GOP establishment refuses to recognize, much less censure: voter ID, ratcheted down abortion access, bigotry masquerading as "religious freedom", concealed carry.
The Tea Party's biggest victory is best seen not as an election night upset but a continental drift rightward. Inexorable, mostly invisible, potentially disastrous.