A day with Dave Brat
Tall and grinning, U.S. Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) works the crowd at Midnight Brewery, a craft beer hall in a rural industrial park just west of Richmond in Goochland County. “Great job with Dent,” says a supporter at a “Brats and Beer With Brat” fundraiser that has drawn a sizable crowd from Brat’s 7th Congressional District, which stretches from the brackish York River to Culpeper’s dairy farms.
Brat is on a roll, so to speak. The hard-line conservative had just trashed Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) on “Meet the Press.” Since he beat then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning primary upset in June 2014 with strong tea party support, he has been ripping up the traditional GOP hierarchy.
“Up in D.C., they’re out of whack,” Brat tells the cheering crowd. His latest coup, as a member of the radical right-wing Freedom Caucus, is forcing out House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). The caucus held the position hostage, demanding Congress go along with procedures it dictated on finding a replacement.
Brat’s message is one of resentment and frustration. Hitting “illegal” immigrants is good material even though his district is mostly white and rural. Its Hispanic population is only 4.9 percent.
He draws eerie allusions to the nation’s xenophobic past when he proclaims that the three essential ingredients for a successful nation are following the JudeoChristian religious tradition, rule of law and free markets. He doesn’t talk about his pet issue — overwhelming federal spending, debts and deficits — because “that’s on my Web site,” he tells Bratfest attendees.
Underlining his status as a rebel, Brat was introduced at the beer hall by Ken Cuccinelli II, another strident social conservative who was Virginia’s attorney general and a gubernatorial candidate in 2013. Praising Brat’s “grass-roots tsunami,” he touted Brat’s “getting rid of the likes of John Boehner.”
To get an idea of where Brat gets his support, I chat with his supporters. The common themes are that government is the enemy and outsiders are threatening.
One woman, a newcomer to political events, says she resented receiving a query from the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau demanding, under criminal penalties, answers to personal questions such as when she leaves for work each day. Another woman wearing a large Ted Cruz button says she backs Brat “because he stands up for what he believes in.”
A middle-aged couple munches on bratwursts. On immigration, the woman said: “They should be brought in to Ellis Island and be debugged, like my husband’s ancestors were when they came from Germany.” Her husband smiled at her joke. Were her predecessors similarly debugged? No, she replied, they were from England.
As the Bratfest attests, Brat has solid Midwestern roots, having grown up in Michigan and Minnesota. Even the mustard came from Cleveland. Theology and economics are important to Brat, a former economics professor at small RandolphMacon College in nearby Ashland. He studied at a seminary in New Jersey and got his economics doctorate from American University.
Brat’s theory is that the best form of capitalism evolves from the merger of religious ethics and free markets. He’s a devotee of John A. Allison, former head of North Carolina’s BB&T bank and the Cato Institute, who pushes “ethical” capitalism and the writings of Ayn Rand.
Brat’s defining moment came in 2011 when he wanted to run as a Republican for an open House of Delegates seat. But the party bosses chose Peter Farrell, the young son of Thomas Farrell, a major GOP donor who is head of Dominion Resources, the state’s powerful utility.
Brat was outraged. “If you want to talk about a rigged system, this is it,” says Bob Holsworth, a Richmond political analyst. Next, Brat went after Cantor, a bright up-and-comer and darling of the Richmond business establishment who was supposed to be Boehner’s successor. But Cantor, wrapped up in his Washington world, ignored his constituents, giving Brat an opening.
So what does Brat stand for other than the politics of resentment and bromides about limiting government power and spending?
It’s hard to tell from the sometimes bizarre statements he makes. Brat challenged reauthorizing $14 billion in spending to teach low-income children with this thought: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and then Plato trained in Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.)