Robert Costa and Jenna Portnoy are out with an interesting, somewhat perplexing (not their fault!) story on how Rep. Eric Cantor came to face a conservative primary challenger.* Cantor is ideally positioned to become the next (and first Jewish) speaker of the House, and in the first great epic battle of the Tea Party's Washington experiment, he generally sided with his caucus against a "grand bargain" that would have raised taxes. Yet last weekend, Cantor failed to get his preferred candidate over the top in a district GOP leadership race, and reporters have discovered his latest challenger, David Brat. The scene:
Cantor tried to reason with conservatives who have embraced Brat.
“It’s easy to say that you’re going to stand up to Obama and the left-wing attack machine, but it is an entirely different thing to actually do it,” a combative Cantor said, “to actually do it, to stand up and be counted.”
The tea partyers weren’t buying it. They booed Cantor, cheered for Brat and even ousted Cantor’s right-hand man as 7th District Republican Committee chairman in favor of one of their own.
Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College in the district, said something in the story that confused me. His race—the race between a congressman and an academic who works with a bank-funded college program to spread the ideas of Ayn Rand—was like "David vs. Rome." What did that mean? I had a guess, but I emailed Bart to check.
"It’s 'David and Goliath,' like the Bible, like the Malcolm Gladwell book," he said. "I was just expanding it – it’s one guy against the entire establishment. Cantor calls me a liberal on Fox News, a hand-chosen protégé of Tim Kaine, because I’m on this revenue estimate board that meets once a year. Now the national media’s shining a light on this thing. They’re finding out that I'm not a liberal!"
No, Brat describes his policies as in line with the Virginia Republican creed. "I’m running 100% on the Republican creed," he said, reciting the preamble about "free markets" from memory. "It’s very good, it's comprehensive, but none of the Republicans are running it. Everybody knows the Republicans are way off course."
In the Post piece, Brat is described as critical of Cantor for raising the debt limit. Would he have refused to do so, had he been in Congress a few month ago?
"There was a spending bill that preceded the debt ceiling increase," said Bart. "My commitment is not to increase spending; to have a spending bill where you don’t increase it. Cantor’s voted for 10 of the last 15 debt ceiling increases. I just don’t buy the idea that you are truly put in the position of backing the debt ceilng increase the last minute, that you had no choice."
And what did he make of Cantor's campaign, starting really after the 2012 election, to address nontraditionally Republican voting groups about how conservatives could reform the government?
"If you look at the Tenth Amendment, the federal government has enumerated powers and the rest fall to the states. I don’t like Eric’s logic that the federal government should be used to solve all of society’s problems."
*Correction, May 14, 2014: This post originally misspelled Jenna Portnoy's last name.