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 dealmakers of his Republican Party snubbed him for someone chosen by allies of Rep. Eric Cantor, the 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.
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Speaking last year at a rally for E.W. Jackson, a fiery preacher who ran unsuccessfully on the Republican ticket for lieutenant governor, Brat impressed Larry Nordvig, 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, 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. Cantor, 51, spent $4.8 million this election cycle and ran several TV ads attacking Brat. Brat ran his campaign on $123,000 and beat Cantor 56 to 44 percent.
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 U.S. illegally.
So it is that the Republican candidate for the 7th 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 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 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 emails 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 the wisdom of arming Syrian rebels, Brat seemed frustrated: “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.”
In a later interview, Brat said his overarching goal has been to merge his interest in philosophy and economics. “I thought I had a special calling to join those two things together. That’s what’s missing from the modern world; everything is compartmentalized.”
Brat is fully on his game, said his peers and students, when it comes to talking about his theories on business and the economy, which are based less in high-grade mathematics than an appreciation for a work ethic that he believes has fueled American growth.
Brat holds a master’s 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 catch phrase 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.
Born in Detroit, Brat grew up in Alma, Mich., the eldest of three sons.
“Dad was a family-practice doctor, and I was the answering machine. Our baby-sitters after school lived on a farm with a huge barn,” Brat told Richmond Magazine this year. “They were great days with my brothers and other kids. It was just an idyllic childhood, with great people around us.”
Brat graduated from Hope College, a small religious liberal-arts university in Michigan and then worked in the Detroit office of a now-defunct accounting firm before going to Princeton Theological Seminary, where his interest in ethics and the intersection of religion and the economy was seeded, and American University, where he earned his doctorate in economics. He later served as an adviser to a Republican state senator.
In 1996, he began teaching at Randolph-Macon College, a liberal-arts college in Ashland, Va., where his Democratic opponent, Jack Trammell, also teaches. There, Brat helps run the Ethics Bowl, a competitive debate team. 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.”
Brat’s father, Paul Brat, is now retired and lives in suburban St. Paul, Minn. He said his son attends a Roman Catholic Church with his wife, who is Catholic. The younger Brat has said he identifies himself as Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian.
Brat has a sort of “Crossfire” thing going with another professor who advises the team, said Sarah Maxwell, a student who debated the ethics of requiring small employers to purchase health care this year under his tutelage.
“I would put him among the more engaging economists,” Maxwell said. “He is serious when you talk to him but he has a sense of humor. He banters with our other professor, who is not as conservative as he is.”
Peace, a lawyer who is active in the preservation of Virginia historical sites, worked with Brat to help the foundation for the Historic Polegreen Church Site, a monument to religious liberty in Hanover County. “We had some very long and meaningful conversations about the original intent of the nation as it related to religious freedom,” he said. “Not many economic professors would have the holistic view of our society and faith and the economy.”
Brat may have remained largely unknown were it not for Cantor himself, who attacked him early in the race as a “liberal professor.”
“The biggest way people got to know him was from Cantor’s negative ads,” said Chad Murphy, an assistant professor at the University of Mary Washington. “But the biggest thing is that he fits with … the district. People like people who are out to help them and he conveyed that image really well.
“When Cantor came, he had Secret Service around him; he was more known for his work back in Washington than in the district. Brat was out there shaking hands and talking to voters and listening to voters. That really helped him.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.