The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A giant killer’s tiny steps on the Hill

Rep. Dave Brat, the Virginia Republican, awoke on a recent morning in his U.S. Capitol office, a suite that has doubled as his Washington bedroom since he pulled off what may be the most astonishing political upset in a generation.

If a mattress on the floor seems like a dubious reward for toppling House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Brat betrays nothing less than gusto as he settles into the few-frills life of a freshman lawmaker.

By 9:30 that morning, the congressman was at a cramped round table a few feet from his receptionist, nodding with vigor as three airline pilots briefed him on something called the FAA Reauthorization Act.

“Who’s getting this?” Brat asked his hovering aides before excusing himself to walk a long hallway, then another, for a meeting that was over before he arrived. Then it was downstairs to a budget hearing, where a full 84 minutes passed before the chairman called on him to ask a question.

A bit more than a year ago, voters in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District were represented by Cantor, one of Washington’s most powerful men, with dominant influence over key committee chairmanships in the House of Representatives and over whether legislation lived or died.

Back home in his heavily Republican district, that power was not universally admired. Cantor alienated constituents who perceived him as more interested in the trappings of Washington than their conservative ideals. In the GOP primary last June, they embraced Brat, 50, an unknown economics professor at the time whose chief virtue was that he was not Eric Cantor.

Cantor’s fall has meant an unquestionable loss of clout in the House for voters of the 7th District and Virginia overall. Their new leader is another face in a swarm of 435 lawmakers, albeit one known as the “Dragon Slayer,” as one passing Republican colleague greeted Brat in the hallway that morning.

So what did Virginia get in the bargain? Driven by tea party activists, Brat’s victory was interpreted as evidence that conservative voters would reject Republicans who temper their views. Yet, whether that conclusion endures is an open question, as establishment Republicans won several primaries in Virginia this month.

A second puzzle is whether Brat is the fleeting beneficiary of anti-Cantor fervor or has what it takes to build and maintain command over a district stretching from the James River in southeastern Virginia to rural horse country west of Washington.

Since joining Congress, Brat has aligned with his party’s most conservative caucus, and he voted against John A. Boehner’s reelection as House speaker. Brat also has learned that his every pronouncement can face scrutiny, sometimes with less than pleasing results.

Russ Moulton, a leading conservative activist in Virginia, said Brat’s opposition to Boehner reaffirmed his status as “one of our big heroes.”

“It told me we had someone who is remaining consistent with what he believes,” Moulton said. “He wasn’t going to Washington and being consumed by the Borg.”

Yet, Linwood Cobb, a Cantor ally, said the congressman’s Boehner vote suggested that “he’s appealing to the fringe. I don’t think he’s representing the majority of residents in his district.”

Despite his opposition to Boehner, as well as Cantor, Brat insists on describing himself as a “unifying force” who is championing his party’s core principles. As for whether Cantor’s exit diminished Virginia’s standing in the House, Brat said: “The goal is not to amass the most power. It’s to represent the people. Their voice is now heard.”

As he spoke, the congressman was on his way to the Small Business Committee, where he sat at the far end of the dais and smiled as the chairman distilled the life of a freshman lawmaker.

“You get here,” the chairman said, “and you think, ‘How did I get here?’ ”

‘If you’re not bawlin’ . . . ’

On a Monday night, Brat traveled to a tea party-sponsored community meeting in Mechanicsville, where conservative activists distributed fliers and pamphlets, including one titled “The Muslim Brotherhood in the Obama Administration.”

“By the end of this, if you’re not bawlin’ you’re not American,” Brat said before reading a proclamation and presenting a flag to a retired Campbell’s Soup salesman who was one of his campaign volunteers.

After a standing ovation, Brat talked of his new life “up there” in Washington, mixing in barbs for the likes of President Obama’s energy secretary (“He’s got the bad hairdo”) and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who he suggested could end up in prison garb for erasing State Department e-mails (“She looks good in orange.”).

When a woman asked whether Obama “could go for a third term,” Brat replied, “That would be the end. Patrick Henry and the rifles would be coming out — that wouldn’t be good.”

Brat likes to portray himself as a man of modest tastes, telling an audience that in Washington, “I’m fighting against guys who drink lattes.” (Days later, after voting on the House floor, he expressed interest in a cappuccino.) When a stranger complimented him on his watch, Brat volunteered that he “got it half off at Nordstrom.”

As much as he postures as a plain-spoken Washington outsider, Brat is the image of the insider, with his rimless glasses, dark suits and a smile made for television. He acknowledges that a political career was his long-term ambition as he earned a master’s degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, a doctorate in economics at American University and a teaching post at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, about 90 miles south of Washington.

A decade ago, Brat volunteered as an assistant for state Sen. Walter Stosch (R-Henrico), an establishment Republican who became his political mentor. With Stosch’s financial help, Brat mounted his first campaign in 2011 for a House of Delegates seat, and he was angry when other Republican leaders, including Cantor, helped anoint a politically connected opponent.

“He felt he was so qualified that no one should consider the other individuals running,” said Don Boswell, a Henrico County Republican leader. “He expressed his displeasure to me to the effect that this was another case of the backroom political establishment making the decision.”

Three years later, Brat took on Cantor, despite discouragement from Stosch and others who didn’t think he had a chance. As the election approached and another Cantor sweep seemed imminent, Brat sensed he had the support at 60 percent of the doors on which he was knocking as he talked of Republican principles and issues such as the need for term limits.

Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham gave Brat a big boost, but it was a Cantor television ad that portrayed Brat as liberal that may have done the most to publicize his underdog bid. “We’d go to people’s doors,” said Phil Rapp, Brat’s campaign manager, “and they’d say, ‘That’s the professor from the ad. He’s a liberal?’ ”

A year later, as Brat travels his district, he said he gets “no pushback or negativity” from Cantor allies.

But it may be unwise to view silence as acceptance.

“There were significantly hard feelings that are still around,” Boswell said. “I regret losing the influence we had with Cantor.

“Dave was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “And that was an extreme anomaly.”

Beyond beating Cantor

Between meetings one afternoon, Brat was in his office in the Cannon House Office Building, eating a tuna sandwich that an aide had delivered from the cafeteria downstairs. A portrait of James Madison hung on a wall. On another was a rendering of Jesus on a boat in a storm.

“I thought it was a good metaphor for the office,” the congressman said, his words alternating with the sound of crunching chips.

Brat described his new job as an “overwhelmingly huge thought project,” one that does not make him miss the teaching gig he gave up for Congress. “This is better. In academia, you get to study it. Here you get to do it.”

Brat is aware that he may always be known as “the guy who beat Eric Cantor,” as Glenn Beck, the conservative television host, referred to him recently — and that whatever Brat accomplishes in Congress may be overshadowed forever by that feat. The way to top his victory, he said, is: “I do something for people. You’ve got to get something done.”

What Brat is pushing is a balanced budget amendment, an idea that has been proposed by others. He also has embraced a full menu of conservative talking points, decrying the national debt and criticizing the Affordable Care Act and amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

One aspect of Washington politics Brat said he disdains is how “scripted” his colleagues can be. Yet Brat himself is capable of disciplined answers, particularly when a question is pointed.

One apparently sensitive spot is his link to Stosch, his mentor, who is more moderate than the conservative activists who backed Brat’s victory last year. While Brat worked for him, Stosch supported tax increases that tea party leaders oppose.

Asked during an interview whether he favored the tax increases that Stosch backed, Brat said: “I didn’t support them or not support them. It wasn’t my role.”

Then he said: “I don’t want to say anything. He was my mentor.”

At other moments, his discipline seems to falter.

On several occasions, he has talked of “2,000” Syrian refugees having crossed American borders “last month” or “two months ago.” He describes the refugees as having been “un-vetted” by immigration officials, a statement he repeated during a radio interview in which he added that Syria “is the home of ISIS.”

Asked during the interview to cite evidence for his assertion, Brat said, “I don’t use anything unless I’ve checked it umpteen times.” Then, turning to Julia Hahn, his press secretary, the congressman asked, “Julia, do you know?”

Brian Gottstein, Brat’s communications director, later acknowledged that, despite the congressman’s statements, 2,000 Syrian refugees have not arrived, though they are “expected by this fall or sooner.”

The FBI has testified that it “doesn’t have adequate information to separate legitimate refugees from potential terrorists,” Gottstein said. “Rep. Brat, along with others, has sounded the alarm on this fact.”

‘Blurred’ reply on term limits

At a community meeting in Beaverdam on another Monday, Brat complained that a reporter had twisted his words to suggest he was comparing undocumented immigrants to terrorists when he criticized a proposal to invite such immigrants to enlist in the military.

“I always said I loved every single person in the world,” Brat said as he spent nine minutes criticizing the Richmond Times-Dispatch article, including the choice of a photo that he said showed him scowling.

“That’s called bias,” he said.

After completing his critique, he asked the crowd, “What else do you need to raise your blood pressure?”

Someone thanked him for representing the district. Someone else asked, “What will it take to have Hillary arrested?”

A man stood and told the congressman that the issue that “drew me to you was the concept of term limits.”

Brat recalled his campaign promise to serve no longer than 12 years, but he then volunteered that he was supporting a bill that would set the limit at 20 years.

“I don’t think there’s a magical number,” he said. Days later, he would explain that 20 years was “better than nothing.”

But that night, in the last row, Buzz Foster, a retired state police officer who voted for Brat, wasn’t sure what to make of the congressman’s response.

“It was a little blurred,” Foster said. “He didn’t answer it. He didn’t really say he’d put it in motion.”

He sighed and shook his head.