Born: July 27, 1964
Family: Married, Laura Brat; two children
Education: Hope College, B.A., 1986; Princeton Theological Seminary, M.Div., 1990; American University, Ph.D., 1995
Career: Economics professor, 1996-2014; legislative assistant, 2005-12; World Bank consultant, 1994; management information consultant, 1986-87
Elected Office: None
The greatest political shock in this election cycle — and arguably in years — was Dave Brat’s GOP primary upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. An obscure college professor, Brat tapped into voters’ anti-Washington mood to topple the House’s No. 2 Republican before coasting to victory over Democrat Jack Trammell in Virginia’s 7th District.
Brat is an unlikely tea-party hero. Born and raised in Dearborn, Mich., he studied business and religion before completing a Ph.D. in economics at American University. Since 1996, he has taught economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., focusing in particular on the ethics of capitalism. Apart from a failed run in 2011 for the state House of Delegates, he stayed out of politics and led the quiet life of an academic.
But Brat’s political timing was impeccable. After redistricting, the 7th became more conservative, dropping parts of Richmond and taking in more of New Kent County. Cantor had thought that would shore up his reelection, but in fact it brought in more rural voters amenable to the tea-party message rather than white-collar professionals who had made up his base. Many felt that Cantor’s leadership duties and fundraising increasingly kept him away from the retail politics that his constituents expected.
The race ultimately turned on the issue of immigration. Although the House GOP refused to take up a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate last year, Cantor staked out a position to the left of many in his party when he proposed limited reforms covering children of undocumented workers who were brought into the United States as minors. Conservatives saw that as a bridge too far, and Brat picked up on their anger.
As the primary campaign progressed, Cantor committed several unforced errors. He used much of his huge cash advantage — raising $5.7 million to Brat’s $231,000 — to launch a negative ad campaign that increased Brat’s name recognition rather than hurting him. Cantor also took comfort from the only two polls issued, both of which happened to be favorable, while ignoring the outsize attention that Brat was getting from conservative media stars such as Laura Ingraham.
On primary day in June, Brat bested Cantor by a stunning 11 percentage points. The first House leader to ever lose a primary, Cantor soon resigned his seat to take a job with an investment bank, while Brat settled into the more cautious role of a front-runner. Cantor’s resignation meant that the November election is both a special and general contest, allowing Brat to be sworn in right away and acquire three months’ seniority over other freshmen.
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