As the clock approached midnight on Tuesday night, Randolph-Macon economics professor David Brat was still in a bit of shock that this was really happening to him.
“I’m still recovering…we’re watching it on TV right now I’m like, ‘that’s me!’ Unbelievable,” he told me in a 20-minute phone interview. “I’m just numb! I just want to go to bed! It’s like my life dream on steroids, right? I got to share ideas I believe in on national TV. It’s just unbelievable.”
Brat had just accomplished the unthinkable, defeating Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary in Virginia’s 7th district, and in a 11-point rout, no less.
In talking to Brat, I was struck by the similarities between what he told me about how he won and how Nebraska Senate GOP nominee Ben Sasse won his race. The key, Brat said, was connecting deeply to voters on policy in face-to-face interactions.
“I gave 20 minute stump speeches, and the press made fun of me for giving wonkish economic talks,” Brat said.
Notably, Cantor didn’t call Brat to concede last night, he said, and Cantor’s concession speech failed to even acknowledge his rival by name. In the chaotic hours that followed, Republicans in D.C. were discussing the possibility that Cantor might wage a desperate write-in bid to save his job in Congress. Brat said he hadn’t heard anything about that.
On immigration, the signature issue of the campaign, Brat warned House Republicans quietly gauging support for legislative action in the coming weeks that now is the “absolute worst time” to address the issue. That may be irrelevant, given that even devout amnesty advocates were privately acknowledging Tuesday evening that the push for immigration is dead with Cantor’s loss.
What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of our talk:
What was your experience watching the results come in?
I got done working at the poll at 7:00pm.Then went home to just clean up a little bit before we went to the party. So I got to the party about 7:45 and the numbers were already coming in.
By that time we were already like 56 percent in, and it was looking like, I was going to win on a probability kind of basis. And then I had a bunch of my friends in the room, they’re all just going crazy. And so they’re like, ‘you won! You won!’ And I’m like, ‘no, I didn’t win yet. Hold your horses. I’m going to wait until this thing is called, ’till Eric’s made his talk or whatever.’
I just waited, and waited, and waited and pinched myself. And then, boom, everybody called it.
What was the scene like at your victory party?
It was just utter thankfulness and almost a religious dimension to it of just utter thankfulness to God and to the people.
What do you attribute your victory to in particular?
It’s just a perfect combination of all the things. I take policy seriously, I’m not just trying to be a political hack. And then, you meet with people, and I gave 20 minute stump speeches, and the press made fun of me for giving wonkish economic talks.
I talked to the press continuously, and I said, ‘look, I’m not a liberal economist like Eric’s ads say, I’m not a total Tea Party guy,’ I said, ‘I’m trying to run as a Republican on the Republican creed on serious policy kind of issues.’ And the press just always kind of wanted to, ‘surely you’re joking. You’re not for real.’
No, I was for real, and the Tea Party folks, the grassroots folks, and everybody I met with loved that. They are constantly put down by the press, but they’re very concerned with constitutional issues and free-market issues and that’s what’s right about the country, when people want to learn how to make things better.
And then, the other major variable, is Eric Cantor started the campaign off with a million dollars in ads calling me a liberal professor that worked for Gov. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). It helped me to win — it gave me a million dollars in name ID.
You’re an economics professor with free market views in line with the Chicago school. A lot of economists are for more immigration, saying it increases the size of the economy. But you campaigned on a very populist immigration vision.
No, the libertarians are that way. But, I’m a kind of more Friedman guy.
Economics is just a sub discipline. The rule of law precedes economics. And so in economics you assume all else is constant, and that’s one heck of a big assumption. It’s not about saying how the world ought to be, we’re just supposed to describe how the world is and how it behaves. And so economists that are free-market and saying that implies free mobility across lines and all this kind of thing, I guess the way I contrast myself is I’m a true conservative, and so national borders and the rule of law all precede economics.
Milton Friedman is a big inspiration?
He would probably be my favorite.
Over the course of the campaign, Cantor was all over the place on immigration. In his mailers, he was an anti-amnesty warrior, but then he came out and said the “DREAM Act” is Biblical. How did that impact the campaign?
It’s hard to see the space between Eric Cantor and his campaign for me. I think he was walking a tightrope and his political guys had already marked off certain turf and so he had to maneuver. He was flip-flopping all over, and everybody knew it.
The unfortunate thing is a lot of people even down here say, well that’s just politics. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think it’s just politics, and I don’t think it’s just the way it is. When you flip-flop on major policy issues and use false advertising for me that’s a disqualifier. And I made that clear.
I tried to run a very ethical campaign. I didn’t lie one time or stretch the truth, and I think people resonated with that. I have an ethics background. It doesn’t mean you’re perfect. But I tried to set an entirely different bar for politics in DC that’s based on ethics and first principles and political philosophy, and not this constant bickering of are you right or left?
During the home stretch of the campaign, tens of thousands of children were streaming across the Southern border, creating a major crisis. Did that have a big impact?
I don’t think it had a huge impact. I mean, it helped in dealing with the media because too often the media wants to portray you as somehow less than compassionate if you’re for strong borders and you’re against amnesty. And so, it made it very hard for the media to deny that you have a perfect case study taking place when the theory says, lets do a child act, and then Drudge has got the top line with those children saying, ‘we heard there’s a child act and so we’re coming across the border.’
When I said that to the press, you know, they said, ‘well what would you do about all the people here?’ That’s the hardest question that’s always asked. The answer is, if you followed my policies you wouldn’t have that problem in the first place.
It’s kind of like the financial crisis. If you followed free-market theory you wouldn’t have got there in the first place. If they ask you, ‘are you responsible for this?’ No, I’m not responsible. If you followed the right principles in the first place, you wouldn’t find yourself in these problems.
A group of House Republicans has been quietly gauging support for passing immigration legislation. What do you think about whether this is the right time to address the issue in Congress.
No! Absolutely not. Our economy is in a shambles, the labor markets are not functioning well, and it’s the worst of all possible times to talk about it. We need to first shut down the border and after that’s done, we always get outflanked because we don’t cover the basics first in order. You can talk immigration but only after you secure the border. I’m waiting on that.
Did Cantor call you to concede?
No, we never talked. I just knew he was giving a concession speech.
There’s discussion that he might try to wage a write-in campaign. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I haven’t heard anything on it.
His defeat leaves a large vacuum in House GOP leadership. Do you have any thoughts on who should lead the party?
No. I won’t even comment on that one.
In terms of personalities — I don’t care about the personalities, I want leadership that’s in favor of my principles: free markets, adherence to the Constitution, and equal treatment for everyone under the law.
What’s your message to the GOP on what direction the party should go?
I like Ronald Reagan who didn’t play crass politics and he just articulated and delivered on broad themes that were needed. Free markets meant free markets. Deregulation. Lower tax rates. Strong national defense. And he was credible and believable.
I tried to articulate some version of that. The Virginia Republican creed — it has six principles and I ran on those six principles.
The Republicans are not truly free market in any sense. Everybody’s free market in theory until it effects their firm. Everybody wants a little carve-out, or a little tax credit, or a little of this here and there, and it’s ruining the country. And so now everybody — it affects my students. Everybody wants to be a lawyer because everybody’s in the rent-seeking business instead of the manufacturing and productive sectors.
We have to get back to first principles. China is moving free market and doing well and we’re kind of moving the opposite direction. It will affect our job opportunities and our kids’ future.
When you woke up Monday morning, in your heart of hearts, did you think you were going to win?
I honestly did.
I honestly did think I had a win. I didn’t think it in a confident or cocky way. But I pounded hundreds and hundreds of doors along with at least 500 other people – at least – who knocked doors. And out of a hundred doors, I just did the math, and everyone was turning towards me.
I saw it. That’s why. It wasn’t theoretical. I was knocking doors and so I did think. The question at the end, in politics, you just never know if there’s going to be last-minute tricks or this kind of thing, you know, it’s a nerve-wracking process. And so, you don’t know the future perfectly, but I thought I was seeing a win.
When did you start to think you would win the race?
Right from the start. I would not have run if I didn’t think I would win. It might sound crazy but, when I made the decision last January to run, I thought that there was a win there.
What’s it like being on the other end of a $5 million campaign to destroy you?
That’s why I ran. I ran exactly because I knew that he would run that kind of a campaign and because he’s done it in the past, he did it to the past person, and I’ve just seen how he runs politics in my area. It’s not just the policy difference, it’s about how you run politics. And I’m just sick of this crass, hard-hitting politics. I just do not like it.
What was your experience in dealing with the press?
It was just benign neglect. They would cover me just enough to say they covered me. I called them constantly. Cantor was continually running false ads. They wouldn’t cover the issues at all.
You raised a lot of points about the structural problems of the political system in your campaign. What is your criticism of how the system works?
Very few politicians are at the beck and call of their constituents. I think one thing we demonstrated very clearly tonight, if you respect the people, they will respect you back in turn. Our politicians, I hope, will see tonight’s event as just a moment of awakening where we begin to pay more attention to the people and their needs instead of the needs of the crony capitalists up in DC.