WASHINGTON — Three years ago, David Brat, a conservative economics professor, decided to have a go at politics, making a run for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. But the backroom deal-makers of his Republican Party snubbed him for someone chosen by allies of Representative Eric Cantor, the US House majority leader.
“All of us got bullied to get out in favor of the one guy who had a connection to most of the Republican office holders in Virginia,” said Steven Thomas, who also sought the nomination.
Disillusioned by the experience — which he viewed as strong-arming by the local party establishment of which Cantor was the titular head — Brat, 49, went on with his career in academia but maintained his political ambitions, said several people who work in local politics.
Speaking last year at a rally for E.W. Jackson, a fiery preacher who ran unsuccessfully on the Republican ticket for lieutenant governor, Brat (rhymes with “chat”) impressed Larry Nordvig, the executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, who was looking for a challenger to Cantor. Brat took the unlikely opening.
His bid to unseat Cantor, the second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, was akin to a youth soccer league taking on Brazil. But Brat’s ability to connect with voters combined with the perception that Cantor was not engaged in his district to deliver one of the most stunning upsets in modern political history.
Despite running an anti-establishment campaign in which he criticized government bailouts and budget deals and frequently invoked God and the Constitution, Brat failed to secure the endorsement of Tea Party groups with national networks, and he struggled to raise enough money to mount a serious advertising campaign.
Instead, he used speeches and media appearances to rail against Cantor as a creature of Washington, a stooge for big business, and a supporter of amnesty for immigrants in the United States illegally.
So it is that the Republican candidate for the Seventh Congressional District of Virginia is no longer the man who would be speaker, but rather an obscure professor whose central interest is religious freedom and its effect on the economy, and a leader of the university’s competitive ethics team who wears pedagogic glasses and a C-SPAN-ready shock of lacquered auburn hair.
“His passion for the structure of government and belief in free markets” inspired him to run for Congress, said Christopher K. Peace, who has collaborated with Brat on state budget issues at Randolph-Macon College, where Brat is a professor. “I don’t think even he expected to win.”
It was not long before Brat — who did not return e-mails and whose spokesman’s voice mail was full — had his just-folks campaign style tested by an excitable media maelstrom. When pressed by Chuck Todd on MSNBC Wednesday morning to articulate a view on a federal minimum wage, he seemed flummoxed: “I don’t have a well-crafted response on that one,” he said.
Asked about wisdom of arming Syrian rebels, Brat seemed frustrated and unmoored.
“I thought we were just going to chat today about the celebratory aspect,” he said. “I love all the policy questions, but I just wanted to talk about the victory.”
Brat is fully on his game, said his peers and students, when it comes to talking about his theories on business and the economy, based less in high-grade mathematics than an appreciation for a Protestant work ethic that he believes has fueled American growth.
Brat holds a masters in divinity from the Princeton Theological Seminary, and religion, particularly the importance of Christianity, is a theme in his work, including his thesis, “Human Capital, Religion and Economic Growth,” and a presentation to the Virginia Association of Community Banks titled “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism, From the Great Generation to Financial Crisis . . . What Went Wrong?”
While Brat is firmly pro-free-market, during the campaign he repeatedly denounced crony capitalism, a catchphrase of the early Tea Party movement, and criticized Cantor’s ties to lobbyists. At times he is critical of Wall Street and what he sees as forms of market manipulation. “I am anti-distortions to the free markets,” he told Todd.
In 1996, he began teaching at Randolph-Macon College, a liberal arts college in Ashland, where his Democratic opponent, Jack Trammell, also teaches. There, Brat helps run the Ethics Bowl, a competitive debate team of sorts. He lives outside Richmond with his wife, Laura Sonderman Brat, and two children, Jonathan, 15, and Sophia, 11.
“Most professors have a liberal bias,” said Rodney Jefferson, who has served on the college board of associates with Brat. “In that regard, Dave Brat stands out at Randolph-Macon College.”