- - Thursday, June 12, 2014


House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat at the hands of a little-known, free-market economics professor is a hopeful reminder that sometimes the little guy can still beat City Hall.

Mr. Cantor lost his party primary to Dave Brat, a devoutly religious teacher who earned a master’s in divinity degree from a theological seminary in Princeton, N.J., and then got a doctorate in economics, which he taught at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College before running for Mr. Cantor’s seat.

Few paid much attention to him, least of all the national Tea Party establishment, who thought it was impossible to beat the No. 2 GOP House leader, who was re-elected with 79 percent of the vote in 2012.

Major Tea Party organizations plowed their money into other high-profile races, without much success lately, and Mr. Brat was left to scrounge money wherever he could. He raised a little more than $200,000 to Mr. Cantor’s nearly $5 million war chest.

However, primaries can be giant-killers because relatively few voters turn out for them. Get your voters to the polls in a low-turnout race by appealing to hot-button issues such as illegal immigration, the crooks on Wall Street and the big spenders in Congress, and you can beat Goliath.

We’re talking about very low turnout here: 36,110 votes for Mr. Brat (about the number of people who can fill a good-sized baseball stadium), versus only 28,898 votes for Mr. Cantor.

It was a political shocker, no doubt about it, but it wasn’t the unprecedented defeat the national news media called it, nor one with huge, long-lasting implications about this fall’s midterm elections.

Bigger congressional leaders have been taken down by come-from-behind insurgents before. Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington state was swept out of office in the 1994 general election when the Republicans decisively won control of the House.

Who can forget the stunning defeat 10 years later of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota by Republican John Thune? There are a number of others in the political record books.

In this case, Mr. Cantor had no one to blame but himself for not paying enough attention to this race, voter turnout and Mr. Brat’s message in a declining economy. Mr. Cantor was said to be aloof, spent too much time on party fundraising and not nearly enough time in his district.

Immigration is a big issue in Virginia, and Mr. Cantor had supported some kind of a compromise to begin fixing a broken system. However, voters who turned out for Mr. Brat wanted no part of that.

Still, it would be hard to draw hard-and-fast, national implications on this one issue — though it is clear that no comprehensive immigration-reform bill has a snowball’s chance in this election year, or the next two years, either.

When Mr. Cantor was going down in flames Tuesday night, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who backs immigration reform, was cruising toward a hefty 56 percent victory over a multicandidate Tea Party field.

Yet, the national news media was going ballistic in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Brat’s huge upset, drawing over-the-top, bombastic conclusions from this one primary race.

Preposterous newspaper headlines said Mr. Cantor’s defeat had thrown “Congress into disarray,” had dealt a “stunning blow to the GOP establishment” and was also “bad news for big business.”

But the ink was barely dry on such hyperbolic headlines when Mr. Cantor was resigning from his party post and House Speaker John A. Boehner moved quickly toward the election of a new majority leader drawn from the GOP’s top ranks.

As for any serious injury to the GOP establishment, the fact is that they have, with few exceptions, been winning most of their party-nominating contests so far.

What’s politically important in Mr. Brat’s victory is what he focused on as an economist and in his campaign: capitalism, religion and ethics in business.

For starters, he’s a fan of novelist Ayn Rand, literature’s high priest of capitalism. While he has railed against wrongdoing on Wall Street and “crony capitalism,” he’s all pro-business and pro-free markets from top to bottom.

Yes, he has repeatedly lashed out at the “crooks up on Wall Street in some of the big banks,” but he quickly and pointedly adds, “I’m pro-business, so I’m just talking about the crooks. They didn’t go to jail; they’re in Eric’s Rolodex.”

He has called for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, and a flat, or maybe flatter, tax on incomes. He thinks President Obama’s proposal to slap a new and higher minimum wage on businesses is foolhardy, on Wednesday telling MSNBC’s Chuck Todd: “You cannot artificially make up wage rates.”

He effectively tied Mr. Cantor’s politics to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which backed him financially and to a large extent has become a whipping boy for corporate welfare in government expenditures and tax policy.

“He’s running on the Chamber of Commerce growth plan. If you’re in big business, he’s good for you, but if you’re in any other group, it’s not so good for you,” Mr. Brat said at a church gathering in April.

Mr. Brat ran flat-out on an old style, populist platform that was based on a return to stronger, pro-growth, capitalist policies that include much lower tax rates, curbing federal spending, and getting government out of the way.

In a party that seems to have lost its voice on economic growth, job creation and capital investment, his message is a breath of fresh air.

Jack Kemp, once the party’s leading economic apostle of growth and prosperity, is gone, as are U.S. capitalism’s greatest proponents, Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan.

In 1995, Mr. Brat wrote a doctoral dissertation that he titled “Essays on Human Capital, Religion and Growth.”

After nearly six years of economic decay and decline under Mr. Obama’s failed policies, Mr. Brat’s hopeful, pro-growth message is needed now more than ever.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.

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