But it’s also a lot more than that, and framing his win in “Tea Party vs. Establishment” terms is a bit of an oversimplification. Brat said as much on Fox News after the results came in:
“It wasn’t a contest between the Tea Party and the Republicans and all this,” he said on Hannity, “although I had tremendous Tea Party support and just wonderful people in the Tea Party and grassroots helping me out. They’re clearly responsible for the win. But I ran on the Republican principles.”
Brat was unapologetic about the Republican Party moniker. But he also drew impassioned support from grassroots activists, many of whom eschew the R-word.
Virginia conservative grassroots activism predates the birth of the Tea Party by a long shot. And right-leaning activists in the Old Dominion are an ideologically diverse bunch. Their numbers include conservative Catholics, evangelical Christians, the very-much-alive vestiges of Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign and, of course, numerous Tea Party organizations.
This is the network that propelled Ken Cuccinelli to the Republican gubernatorial nomination, and these are the folks who came together behind Brat in Virginia's 7th Congressional District.
But while welcoming their support, Brat has taken care to emphasize his Republican bona fides. And he's had a secret weapon of sorts that helped him do this: The creed of the Republican Party of Virginia. The creed has six planks, including “that faith in God, as recognized by our Founding Fathers is essential to the moral fiber of the Nation” and “that the free enterprise system is the most productive supplier of human needs and economic justice.” (You can read the whole thing here.)
Travis Witt, who chairs the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation and is a member of the Republican Party of Virginia State Central Committee (usually called State Central), pointed out that it’s typical to read the creed aloud before county Republican Party meetings and at larger official Republican events. It’s also read before State Central meetings, Witt added. As a document, it’s a big part of Virginia Republican life.
Brat framed his campaign’s messaging around this document, tapping into language that’s very much ingrained in activists’ understanding of why they do what they do.
“I struggle with individuals wanting to label him as a Tea Party candidate,” said Witt, who supported Brat. “He was a man that was able to motivate grassroots. Who are the grassroots? People that work within the Republican Party.”
James Parmelee, who heads Republicans United for Tax Relief and has been active in Virginia politics for a long time, said that in a way, the contest drew heat because of a conflict between an offshoot of a group founded by Cantor and activists who were irked that the majority leader’s allies were looking to play on their turf.
In 2012, activists took over State Central and started using that clout to impact the party’s nomination process. Grassroots activists in Virginia tend to prefer nominating conventions to primaries.
But more mainstream/Establishment/center-right Republicans prefer primaries, where nearly unelectable candidates like E. W. Jackson -- the Republican lieutenant governor nominee in 2013 who said President Obama “has Muslim sensibilities” -- are less likely to win.
Parmelee said that YG Virginia, a state-based offshoot of Cantor-founded YG Network, began working to unseat activist district chairmen who favored conventions over primaries.
“They picked a fight that they had no real interest in, they shouldn’t have had any real interest in, and they got involved on the wrong side,” Parmelee said. “And there was blowback.”
The effort to take back State Central didn’t work.
“Whether or not Cantor had anything to do with it is a point of debate,” wrote D.J. Spiker at conservative Virginia blog Bearing Drift. “[Y]et by extension of the actions of his consultants, Eric Cantor was now even more of a target.”
Spiker has more detail on the timeline of YG Virginia’s efforts. The big picture, according to Parmelee: Politicos allied with Cantor went after conservative district chairmen, and they lost. Conservative activists in the state were angered by the group’s work, and felt that it made Cantor fair game.
There’s not total consensus on that. Others familiar with 7th district politics say the link between YG Virginia’s actions and Cantor’s defeat is tenuous at best, and that other factors played much bigger roles in his astonishing loss.
Regardless, it’s an interesting facet of the story of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.
“The folks who took over State Central two years ago were not anti-Cantor,” Parmelee said. “And they found themselves bearing the brunt of a Young Guns Virginia attack on them.”
“I like Eric Cantor,” Parmelee continued. “Eric Cantor has been a good conservative over the years. He’s pushed a lot of good things. It was dismaying to a lot of people that he jumped in on the wrong side of this particular fight that he really shouldn’t have been involved in. Dismayed is the right word to use. Why did he get involved in this?”
The fallout? Parmelee said that activists who might not have felt the ideological compulsion to go after Cantor decided to target him anyway. And in Brat they found a viable alternative.
“He seems like someone who would be an establishment candidate at any other time if he hadn’t decided to run in the primary,” said Will Estrada, a member of the Loudoun County Republican Committee and long-time conservative activist.
Brat might have earned and welcomed the support of Tea Party activists around the 7th district and the state of Virginia. But there’s a lot more to his win than just that.