At the Hanover Arts and Activities Center, a quaint, former Baptist church off Ashland's picturesque main drag, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" blasts from the entrance toward a Fox News van. Supporters in khakis and baseball caps crowd toward the stage. Rand Paul, the libertarian with the national, marquee name, is here, along with Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. But they aren't the stars at this mid-October rally.
The man in the spotlight is Dave Brat, a bespectacled college economics professor who's never held elected office. He's the guy who took down Republican heavyweight Eric Cantor in a stunning primary vote in June for the party's nomination for the state's 7th District seat in Congress. His tea party-inspired win dropped jaws nationally. And barring another surprise like the one that knocked off Cantor, he seems likely to cruise to victory Nov. 4.
A doctor in a white lab coat who dislikes Obamacare introduces Brat, who steps up to the podium with an ear-to-ear smile. "I would like to send a dose of economics and ethics up to D.C.," he says to thunderous applause.
|Brat is the Dave who beat Goliath. As the story went, the high-ranking, powerful Cantor was so distracted as House majority leader that he forgot the people of his district, which extends from Richmond's well-to-do western suburbs to rural Madison County. In the face of Cantor's multimillion-dollar campaign account, Brat and his 23-year-old campaign manager leveraged shoe leather and a strong anti-government message to tap into grass-roots disapproval of Cantor's seduction by the Washington elite. Brat's surprise victory, which confounded pollsters and apparently Brat himself, was national news for weeks.||
More to the story: The candidates make a pitch for your vote.
But in the four months since, the political neophyte has turned down the volume and turned up his guard. He's struggled to keep the momentum of a radical, upstart campaign. And it's because he doesn't have to. He's a Republican frontrunner in a Republican district. The result is that his brand may be taking on a dull edge, while Virginia may be getting a congressman it knows little about.
"In the primary, he was an outsider running the most unconventional campaign one could imagine, in part driven by necessity," says political analyst Bob Holsworth, who serves with Brat on the board of a local education nonprofit. "When he got nominated, he knows he's sitting in a district that's 60-percent Republican."
Holsworth says the mission is clear: "Don't make mistakes, don't be as visible, don't do for your opponent what Cantor did for you."
Analysts say Brat blew the opportunity to spotlight his message in the first days after his primary triumph. He focused on how happy he was to win rather than what it will mean for voters to lose their powerful, well-connected, seven-term congressman.
Since his primary victory — and the following week and a half he spent off the grid — Brat's message has stuck closely to standard conservative fare: Repeal Obamacare, lower taxes, seal America's southern borders, deport undocumented immigrants and prevent their U.S.-born children from getting government aid. (Such messages seemed to appeal to voters in the district, which is 77 percent white and 5 percent Latino.) His favorite topic is attacking the $127 trillion in federal entitlements that he says will bankrupt the country's future.
At the rally in Ashland, where he teaches at Randolph-Macon College, he has unabashed support. One woman says that Obamacare made her health insurance premiums go up $400 a month, and that Brat will turn her life around once he gets the Affordable Care Act repealed.
"I'm not a tea party member," says the woman, who declines to give her name. "He's just a smart guy."
Brat may well be smart, but it's been difficult to get a fix on who he really is. The Henrico resident and father of two describes himself in his campaign biography as "a man of deep faith." He's a former divinity student from Princeton Theological Seminary who got his doctorate in economics from American University. He started teaching at Randolph-Macon in 1996, and since has been especially interested in exploring possible links between what unfettered, free-market capitalism can do to make business and life in general more ethical.
The 50-year-old has run for office only once before. After Bill Janis resigned as a state delegate from Henrico County, Brat made a bid for the Republican nomination in 2011. He failed. Party overlords in the county instead tapped Peter Farrell, who was 28. He's the son of Tom Farrell, chairman and chief executive of Dominion Resources, the utility that bankrolls many political candidates.
Holsworth says Brat was dismayed. But in setting his sights on Cantor, Brat had an ideal chance to offer a lesson in establishment hubris.
"His frustration mirrored the frustration of a lot of Republican activists," Holsworth says. "He ran out of frustration with the Republican establishment, not thinking he would win."
"Politics is like malaria," says Norman Leahy, a director at the conservative blog Bearing Drift. "Once it's in your blood you never get rid of it. Little did he know he was going to burn the car to the ground."
The professor asked recent college graduate Zachary Werrell to be his campaign manager and begin raising money. In five months, Brat raised $200,000 against Cantor's $5.5 million. According to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, Brat spent $123,000 on his entire campaign while Cantor burned through $168,000 on events at three steakhouses alone.
Brat's victory rally came as a moment of vindication for tea-party members from as far as Hampton Roads, who wanted to send a message to career politicians. His bash at an office building in Innsbrook offered a glimpse at some of the activist leanings of his base. A pickup truck parked at the entrance bore a large Brat sign — and bore tribute to the fallen at Benghazi, Libya. Hampton Roads Tea Party Chairwoman Waverly Woods, who sported a neon pink cowboy hat with an added brim of dangling tea bags, said it was the anti-establishment moment she had been waiting for.
"We've had enough," Woods said. "You're not going to shove us out. We are your boss. You're going to either straighten up or ship out."
While about 200 people celebrated, Brat largely secluded himself. He spoke twice to supporters — a second time after glowing through an interview with Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity.
"The country now is watching," he told the crowd. "You made the difference."
The next day, the reality that the country was watching hit Brat hard. An interview with MSNBC's Chuck Todd wasn't the opportunity to praise God and thank supporters that the candidate expected. Questions flew at him about Obamacare and arming rebels in Syria.
"Um, I don't have a well-crafted response on that one," he replied, when asked about his stance on the minimum wage. "You can't make up wage rates. I would love for everyone in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, children of God, to make $100 an hour."
"I love all the policy questions," he told Todd. "I'm happy to deal with more, but I just wanted to talk about the victory and thank everybody that worked so hard on my campaign."
Following the MSNBC interview, he didn't do interviews for a week and a half.
While Brat retreated from the spotlight, the Democrats pushed fellow Randolph-Macon professor Jack Trammell into the fray. And James Carr, an operations manager in the health care industry, worked to distinguish himself as the race's Libertarian candidate. Brat's campaign scrambled to switch gears after a victory that observers say surprised him.
But it didn't surprise Brat's campaign manager, Werrell. "You have a very disliked incumbent, and you have a very likable candidate, and you tell the truth," he told the Washington Examiner after the victory. "And when your opponent spends millions of dollars being extremely negative and aggressive, that backfires — bad. It was kind of a perfect storm."
But Werrell's Facebook page apparently sunk him while national media swarmed on a series of controversial posts — including a status update musing about how people upset at Trayvon Martin's killing could also be pro-choice. Brat quickly replaced him as campaign manager, bringing in Brian Gottstein, who'd served as a spokesman for former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. A hard-line conservative who co-wrote a book with Cuccinelli about the overstepping of the federal government, Gottstein's missions seemed to be to bring professional organization and a more disciplined attitude to Brat's campaign. The perception that Brat flubbed his big debut had to stop.
"It seemed he didn't have any media plan in place," says Chad Murphy, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. "People thought, 'Maybe he's vulnerable, maybe Trammell can win.'"
The new Dave Brat emerged with a carefully controlled message: Put an economist in Washington. It was heavy on his résumé and light on specifics beyond his desire to repeal Obamacare, secure the country's borders and lower taxes. Media access became a privilege rather than a given. Facing his opponents would be kept to a minimum.
Citing a commentary piece about Brat published in Style — which also appeared in the Washington Post — among other disagreements over content, Brat's campaign manager rebuffed numerous interview requests. He physically stepped between the candidate and a Style reporter at a public event, whisking Brat away. Gottstein said the campaign would consider contributing a first-person sidebar for publication (see page 20), but didn't submit one.
"His strategy is laying low, and letting partisanship carry him through the election," Murphy says. "He has nothing to win and everything to lose by going on TV or participating in debates."
While there were a few forums where candidates appeared, only one debate was agreed upon, scheduled to take place at Randolph-Macon on Oct. 28. Carr wasn't invited.
It's a far cry from the picture painted by his Democratic challenger and Randolph-Macon colleague, who says he never knew the professor as one to shirk debate. Trammell blames Brat's campaign for keeping Carr out of the only debate of the race.
"I'm disappointed," Trammell says, "but I also understand — knowing Dave personally — that it's not his choice. This is what [his] people are telling him to do. He was never one to shy away from a debate. We had our share of conversations in the hallway."
"As a strategy, I don't like it, because if I were in his position I would want people to be certain I know who I am, and what my message is," Trammell adds. "There should be truth and disclosure and an ability to contrast candidates."
Both Trammell and Carr's campaigns have criticized Brat for avoiding direct encounters — including a forum in New Kent County that organizers say he agreed to and later pulled out of. At a forum Thursday held by the Goochland County Chamber of Commerce, all three candidates stood onstage for the first and likely only time.
Brat's introduction hit the familiar notes — Obamacare is a disaster, there are $127 trillion in unfunded liabilities. He worked in a few ripped-from-the-headline items: Ebola as an ignored national health crisis, the risk of Islamic militant group ISIS sneaking across the Mexico border.
During the hour and a half of bouncing questions on gun control, surveillance, immigration and health care between candidates, Brat seemed comfortable using broad strokes to paint himself as the answer for an electorate suffering under the Obama administration.
The key point: "If you vote for my opponent, you are voting for [Obama's] policies."
As for his opponent? "It's almost like a 'Seinfeld' show," Brat quipped of the Trammell campaign. "It's a campaign about nothing."
That from someone who bristles when pressed for details on what his anti-Obama pitch boils down to. When a reporter asks what would happen when millions of people lose their health insurance if Obamacare is repealed, Brat throws back a question: "Can you tell me how many people have lost their insurance due to Obamacare?"
"It's very clever to turn a question around," Leahy says, "but does he have an answer for what he would replace it with? Not really."
Randolph-Macon political science professor Richard Meagher says the behavior is unlike the professor he knows, echoing Trammell's tales of spirited debates in the lunchroom.
"We argued with him about a lot of things in the past — it's been congenial," Meagher says. "Philosophical differences, economics, policy. Dave is a true believer. He's not somebody who's adopted a pose to position himself."
But in four months, the messaging has gone from a tea-party-aided scream to carefully managed sound bites. While June's primary victory rally brought a pickup truck hauling a massive sign about the Benghazi debacle, October brought bumper-stickers on midsize SUVs. There are no tea bags hanging from cowboy hats.
Murphy says the lack of tea party fervor in Ashland shows Brat's transition from outsider to mainstream candidate. And he's running like one.
"It doesn't meet the ideals of our Founding Fathers," Murphy says. "This campaign isn't what they would have envisioned. It's very much just, 'Rely on the R by my name and that's all you need to know,' rather than the vigorous debate of ideas."
Brat's also figured out how to raise money at a level far above outsider and first-time candidate status. His campaign account has spent more than $700,000 of the $1.1 million it's brought in — including political action committee donations from such national players as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.
Leahy and others say a Trammell upset would be about as unexpected as Brat defeating Cantor. The district is too Republican to go for a Democrat. If Brat walks away with an easy win, Leahy says, transitioning to Congress will be even more difficult than running a real campaign. Hiding in Congress isn't an option if you want to serve your district.
Even if Cantor was out of touch with his district, as Brat hammered in his primary campaign, at least he had a record on which voters could judge. If Brat gets to Congress, it's difficult to tell what he will do and how he will do it.
"Mr. Brat is going to find there are 435 other prima donnas stalking the House floor who think they're the most important person," Leahy says. "He'll have to fight not only for oxygen, but ego space. It will be a humbling lesson to learn.
"His supporters may have elevated expectations of what he can achieve," Leahy adds. "They're going to be disappointed. That's a fact."
While Brat wandered through the crowd after the Ashland rally, he spoke briefly to the woman whose health insurance had skyrocketed. She described her struggle while Brat leaned in, smiling widely. She says the candidate told her he was there only to shake hands. S