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Dave Brat chats with campaign manager Zach Werrell (right) at Brat's Glen Allenheadquarters.
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Brat mingles with members of the Heaven's Saints motorcycle ministry, Randy"Zippo" Breen (left) and Tanner "Clear Coat" Mansfield.
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Brat addresses voters at a Henrico Country Republican Party breakfast meeting inInnsbrook.
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Dave Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, says he's no dreamy intellectual. Still, he likes what Plato says about the right time to enter political life:
"Plato said do math until you're 30. Study philosophy until you're 40, politics [until] 50, and then [you should be] wise enough to enter politics at 50."
"I'm 49 now. I'll be 50 this summer. So I'm about due," Brat says.
Brat has stepped into a race in which victory seems improbable. He's trying to defeat Eric Cantor for the Republican nomination to Congress in the 7th Congressional District, which covers parts of the city of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico, and all of Hanover and Goochland counties. The district also touches Spotsylvania County and includes Culpeper, Louisa, New Kent and Orange counties. The Republican primary is June 10.
In 2012, Cantor received 79 percent of the vote in the GOP primary before going on to win a seventh term.
Peter Greenwald, a retired naval commander who now teaches at James River High School in Chesterfield County, had also announced his candidacy to challenge Cantor in the primary. But Linwood Cobb, the 7th District Republican chairman, says that Greenwald decided not to run.
Cantor, who has represented the district since 2001, has risen about as high as a Republican can rise in Congress — to majority leader of the House of Representatives.
"I want to be Eric Cantor's term limit," Brat says decisively, and repeatedly.
B rat's candidacy made a splash in early January when the National Review, a widely read conservative publication, described him in a headline as "Eric Cantor's Challenger from the Right."
A few days later, on Jan. 9, Brat announced his candidacy. Cantor immediately published an attack ad, addressed to his "friends," against Brat.
"Today a liberal economics professor announced he will challenge Congressman Cantor in the Republican primary. Professor Dave Brat has kicked off his campaign pretending to be a conservative, but don't be fooled," the ad says.
"Professor Brat once served as then Governor Tim Kaine's hand-picked economic advisor and is no friend of conservatives. We don't need a protégé of Senator Tim Kaine representing us
For Brat, the National Review story represented a goldmine of publicity. He estimates that about 50 other publications ran the story, or their versions of it, including Politico and the Huffington Post.
As to the assertion he's running to Cantor's right, or Cantor's assertion that he's a "liberal," Brat says he can't be defined by a headline, nor can his views.
"So, I'm either a right-wing extremist or a liberal," he says. "I reject that language because it doesn't apply to the complex world we live in. It depends on what issue we're talking about, and these words have different meanings in different contexts. I think that kind of sound-bite politics has gotten us to where we are, and I don't want to engage in it."
Brat maintains that the principles he's running on are aligned with the tenets of the Republican Party's creed. Among other things, the creed stresses the virtues of the free enterprise system, and stipulates that the federal government should preserve individual liberty by observing constitutional limitations.
"And anyone who's in favor of those, I welcome on board — and that includes the tea party, Republicans and independents," Brat says.
Although Brat may be outpaced by Cantor in fundraising and name recognition, he has demonstrated the will to challenge the House majority leader on all fronts. In mid-April, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Brat sent a letter to the Republican Party of Virginia complaining of a potential conflict of interest between the party's new executive director, Shaun Kenney, and the Cantor campaign. Kenney was previously affiliated with K6 Consulting Group, which had listed Cantor as a client. Kenney denied having worked directly as a consultant for Cantor.
One constant with Brat is attacking Cantor's conservative credentials on issues such as immigration reform and the national debt.
He says that Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner are pressuring fellow House Republicans to abandon their principles and give in to liberal Democrats and President Barack Obama.
On immigration, Cantor has said he supports citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.
And during a January retreat in Maryland, House Republican leaders, including Cantor, indicated that they could allow immigrants living in the United States without permission "to live legally and without fear" as long as specific measures were in place first to improve enforcement of immigration laws.
Brat is concerned about more immigrants coming in. "CBO [the Con-gressional Budget Office] reports that we're going to lose 2 million full-time employment slots by 2017 and 2.5 million by the end of the decade as people contend with Obamacare choices. And in that context, Eric Cantor is saying we should bring more folks into the country, increase the labor supply — and by doing so, lower wage rates for the working person," Brat says.
He asserts that he's not being discriminatory in taking a position not to let in more immigrants — he values immigrants as people, but he's focused on the economy and the self-interests of 7th District residents. Letting in more immigrants, he adds, would undermine America's own young workers.
Brat insists that one of Cantor's failings is that he favors big business to a fault, at the expense of middle-income Americans.
The national debt has been a dominant issue among Republicans for years. But this year, the House Republican leadership — including Cantor — cast votes to raise the debt limit until March 2015, without any of the dollar-to-dollar spending cuts that they had demanded in the past.
Cantor blamed the debt ceiling on Democrats, saying in a statement that "House Republicans need more responsible and willing partners in Washington so we can finally and boldly address our long-term debt crisis." But some conservative groups took House Republican leaders to task for not being able to mount a fight on the debt ceiling.
Brat has taken advantage of this rising discontent in the GOP by making the national debt a major talking point in his campaign. "Eric Cantor increased the debt ceiling under [President George W.] Bush in: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007," Brat says in the prepared remarks for his standard stump speech. "Since Eric Cantor has been elected and under his watch as majority leader of Congress, the debt to our nation has gone up to $17 trillion."
Brat says Congress cannot keep "kicking the can down the road," leaving an intolerable debt for the future generations to pay off.
Cantor has a reputation as a prodigious fundraiser, and his campaign totals reflect that.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Cantor had more than $2 million cash on hand as of March 31, and Ballotpedia, a nonprofit/nonpartisan website, has put his net worth at an estimated $9.3 million. Brat, by contrast, had raised $89,611, with $42,418 on hand during the same period.
"[Cantor] has unlimited money to run," Brat observes. "So trying to reach parity is probably unreasonable. But on the other hand, we have 10 to 12 substantial fundraisers on the calendar already. So we will have a serious and creditable campaign for the entirety. And the question will be: Will we attract national money?"
In late February, Brat staged a fundraiser at the Wilton House Museum in Richmond, as he tried to stoke enthusiasm among other conservatives for his campaign.
Laurence Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, talked intensely with small groups amid the scores of potential donors packed into a meeting room.
During a pause in the conversation, he looked to the front, where Brat was shaking hands and preparing to deliver his stump speech. "I was the one who found him and convinced him to run. I knew he was toying with the idea," Nordvig says. "Conservatives have been disappointed by Eric Cantor year after year. He's almost voting like a Democrat."
Nordvig says that some deep-pocketed Republicans are ready to jump in to help Brat if his fundraising efforts reach certain thresholds, but he would not say what those thresholds were.
For his part, Brat says Nordvig and other conservative leaders, including former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a leading figure in the tea party movement and president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, all played a role in his decision to run. "Most importantly, the people that I address have made it clear they think we are off-course, and that would be the primary reason I entered," Brat adds.
Patrick M. McSweeney, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, also attended Brat's fundraiser and spoke on his behalf. "I think Dave understands the larger philosophy of smaller government and lower taxes," he says.
As Brat moves forward, McSweeney says, he has a huge challenge ahead of him. "What he has to do is articulate the vision of a conservative future."
He says Cantor has failed to provide leadership for conservatives. "The majority leader doesn't think he can do anything, because Democrats have the Senate and Obama" has the presidency.
But Kirk Cox, Republican majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates and a longtime Cantor supporter, says the congressman enjoys a broad base of support among his fellow Republicans.
"I don't know David Brat," Cox says. "I've never seen him in Republican circles … never seen him reach out. For a lot of us, Eric is always there."
The biggest issue that Republicans are fighting is Obama's Affordable Care Act, he says, and many conservatives appreciate the fight that Cantor has put forward.
Cox says he doesn't view tea party candidates who challenge mainstream Republicans as traitors to the party. "They have the right to run."
To win elections, he says the Republican Party needs a broad base of support, and the tea party is part of that broad base.
Brat lives in a well-groomed subdivision in Henrico County with his wife and two children, Jonathan and Sophia.
Born in Detroit, Brat grew up in Alma, Mich., a small city of 10,000, and was the oldest of three sons. "Dad was a family practice doctor, and I was the answering machine. Our babysitters after school lived on a farm with a huge barn," Brat recalls fondly. "They were great days with my brothers and other kids. It was just an idyllic childhood, with great people around us."
Brat's brother Dan, who is a year and half younger, is vice chairman of the neuro
pathology department at Emory University, taking on roles as a scientist and researcher as well as a medical doctor.
His brother Jim, who is four years younger, is an attorney at a legal firm in Los Angeles focusing on commercial real estate.
"My parents always pushed education," Brat says. "Hard work, integrity, doing the right thing, trying to aim your life at something that would serve others. There was not a whole lot of politics."
In fact, Brat says he doesn't know what political party, if any, his parents belonged to. "In our house, it was more discussions of theology and ethics."
Brat earned a bachelor's degree in business from Hope College, a small liberal arts university in his native Michigan with a conservative Christian atmosphere. The college slogan is "Hope in God."
Using his business degree as a stepping-stone, Brat went to work after college in the late 1980s for the Detroit office of the once powerful and now defunct accounting firm of Arthur Andersen.
"There was a distinct point when I was working for Arthur Andersen where I did feel a call to seminary," Brat says.
He was soon off to Princeton Theological Seminary. "My intent was to go to seminary and likely teach systematic theology and ethics," he says. "Then while I was there, I met a lot of great ministers, but they did not understand policy and how economies work. And so, [I started thinking about how] I could put some of my talents together in a unique way."
"I took a political semester in D.C. at Wesley [Theological] Seminary and worked in policy. Wesley is right next door to American University, so that led to applying for a Ph.D. there."
It was in Washington that he met his wife, Laura. He was 28 and she was 24. From the beginning, politics played a part in their lives. But not in the way you might think.
"I was working for a small interior design firm in Old Town Alexandria," Laura says in an email interview. " I wasn't earning enough money to cover my living expenses, so I dog-sat for the Under Secretary of Treasury for George H.W. Bush and his wife, in exchange for a room in their basement."
When the phone rang, she recalls, it wasn't unusual for some of the most prominent names in Washington to be on the other end — James Baker, Dick Cheney and Brent Scowcroft. "It was surreal," Laura says.
She and Dave were married in a church, which they later joined, that was attended by George McGovern, Bob and Elizabeth Dole, and eventually Bill and Hillary Clinton.
"Attending church together as a family is very important to both of us," Laura says. "We're both products of divorce, and I think those painful childhood experiences created a strong desire in both of us to create a happy and stable family of our own."
She adds that both their fathers were professionals — Dave's dad was a physician, and hers was an attorney.
Laura has remained upbeat about her husband's run for political office, although she acknowledges that it can take a toll, especially with two children.
"With Dave out of pocket, it's a daily struggle keeping up their schedules. Jonathan and Sophia's schedules, working fulltime and moonlighting as an [unpaid] political consultant/issues researcher for the campaign. All in a day's work! Rinse, repeat," she says.
In 1996, Brat began his teaching career at Randolph-Macon College.
As an intellectual, he says, his life is based on many heroes across various fields. In economics, he leans toward Milton Friedman, who as economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan praised the virtues of a free-market system with minimal interference.
Brat also looks to Reagan, as well as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as political models. "They overcame tremendous odds, and they both just worked constantly for enhancing the role of freedom in the world. And we received unbelievable blessings, both economically and in terms of the perception of the U.S. in the world."
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington and a well-known commentator on Virginia politics, believes that Brat's challenge of Cantor will likely be a "win-win" for the tea party, no matter what the outcome of the Republican primary.
"Even if Cantor wins, he'll be looking over his shoulder for what might happen two years from now," Farnsworth says.
He adds that Brat's campaign mirrors what is happening in various races across the country, where Republican establishment candidates are being challenged.
"The Republican Party has been going through something of an identity crisis these last few years," Farnsworth says. "The rise of the tea party movement has caused a lot of pressure in the party to move in a more conservative direction.
"This is occurring at the same time that Republicans are facing a larger share of young people in the electorate, as well as a more diverse electorate."
Farnsworth says the Democratic Party suffered the same kind of identity crisis in the 1980s, as President Reagan repeatedly pummeled them at the polls.
He says there was great concern among Democrats to put a new face forward and a new image, after Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis suffered humiliating defeats. "They settled on Bill Clinton," Farnsworth says.
While Brat is a decided underdog against Cantor, Farnsworth says you can never
be sure what might happen, especially given the odd dynamics of a party primary.
"Primaries are very low-turnout," he says. "Motivated cadre can take the nomination from an incumbent. Prominence is no protection against an insurgent Republican opponent."
But Kyle Kondik, managing editor of [Larry] Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says that successful primary challenges are few and far between. "They rarely work," he notes. "In the post World War II era, of the incumbents who ran for re-election, only 2 percent running in the House [of Representatives] have been defeated in the primary."
Outside of the tea party, Kondik says he does not believe that Cantor has problems with Republicans. Of Brat, Kondik observes, "He is more viable than the average primary challenger. He may have more name recognition."
The challenge to Cantor is not Brat's first run for public office.
In 2011, he sought the Republican nomination for the House of Delegates seat vacated by former Del. Bill Janis in the state legislative 56th District.
Brat earned his wings in the Republican Party by working in various legislative capacities for Republican state Sen. Walter Stosch of Henrico. He was recruited by one of Stosch's assistants, who had heard him give a talk at River Road Baptist Church.
It was not a political talk. The subject: "Would Jesus drive an SUV?"
Working for Stosch gave Brat an entrée to other influential Republicans. He has worked for various governmental and regional commissions, and has delivered numerous presentations on economic and fiscal issues before business and profes-sional groups.
Brat thought he had a good chance of winning the House of Delegates nomination.
Then Peter Farrell, the son of Dominion Resources CEO Thomas Farrell II, a big donor to the Republican Party, moved into the district. Brat and Farrell were among six prospective candidates who gave short presentations at the Twin Hickory Library in Henrico County.
A committee composed of representatives from throughout the district then went behind closed doors, emerging to say that Farrell had been chosen unanimously. "The political machine in the area under [Cantor] came down into play, and I don't think people got a fair voice in that election," Brat says. "That really prompted me to get more energized at how to get the people a true voice at the table."
Turned away by the Republican establishment, Brat shifted his attention back to college life and a program called "The Moral Foundations of Capitalism," which is funded at Randolph-Macon
by a $500,000 grant from the BB&T Charitable Foundation.
The inspiration for the program came from John Allison, the longtime CEO of the BB&T banking chain, who now heads the Washington-based Cato Institute, a conservative think tank "dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace."
Besides running that program, Brat also chairs the college's economics department.
Mike Carter, who worked at Randolph-Macon for more than three decades in advancement before retiring, has known
Brat for years, and they're longtime adversaries in a game known as "pickleball."
It's a racquetball sport that combines the elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis, and is played on an area that's the size of a badminton court.
"He's pretty good at it," Carter says of Brat's prowess at pickleball. "The only thing faster than his racket speed is his lips," Carter adds with a laugh.
Brat has a reputation as a talker who keeps his classes and his friends amused and informed with a constant stream of conversation. "He's pretty quick and sharp, and sometimes I think he's ahead of everyone else," Carter says. "He's a fun guy to be around, and he doesn't take himself too seriously."
Still, Carter says, Brat has taken his lumps from his own college colleagues. "He has been ridiculed and isolated by faculty who are intolerant of his conservative values."
What bothered him the most, Carter says, was the condescending attitude that some faculty colleagues took toward Brat. "But he never got flustered. He was quick to accept who he was."
Carter admires what he says is Brat's courage to share in public what he believes, even though it may be at sharp odds with the opinions of people with whom he works professionally every day.
"You can't work up a frown on him. He's smiling all the time," Carter says.
Brat says that apart from doing everything he can to defeat Cantor, he has two other objectives that he hopes to achieve in his primary race.
"One is to show people that it is possible to put economics and ethics together, meaningfully, in a political dialogue. Secondly, to show people that they should get a meaningful choice in political competitions … these things are not mono-polies. The party that believes in competition should put forth competition, and let people decide from among multiple
candidates who should best represent the 7th District."
Like many tea party candidates, Brat emphasizes economic issues in his stump speeches; major social issues aren't mentioned. National tea party organizations have expressed concern that engaging in social issues would be divisive.
Brat says he has talked with his children about what he's doing, why he's doing it and why he has to be away from home so much.
"We've had discussions about all that. But they grew up in a household where part of life is serving other people. So they understand there's nothing new," he says.
He adds that his wife, a sales representative for a high-end contract furniture company, has been supportive as well, because she also sees the race in higher terms than just politics as usual. "We know it's a fight, but it's a fight worth having," Brat says.