Before defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Dave Brat was an obscure economics professor at a tiny Virginia college where he published economics papers in little-known journals about religion in free markets.
With a PhD in economics and a master’s in divinity, Brat’s academic career has been focused on capitalism and ethics, a point of view that shaped his nuanced and populist primary campaign not against big business, but crony capitalism and the Wall Street “crooks” who, in his eyes, cheat and destroy a beautiful system.
“The crooks up on Wall Street in some of the big banks — I’m pro-business, so I’m just talking about the crooks — they didn’t go to jail, they’re in Eric’s Rolodex,” Brat recently told radio host Dan Celia, whose Web site said he believes in a “biblically-
responsible system of financial management.”
A portrait of Brat, 49, as a conservative, ethically obsessed political novice emerged Wednesday as the nation scrambled to understand how Cantor, one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, lost so badly in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.
The man who took down Cantor has embraced both Ayn Rand and Protestantism in his work. “Give me a country in 1600 that had a Protestant led contest for religious and political power and I will show you a country that is rich today,” Brat once wrote in a paper that argued that economists were “slow to acknowledge perhaps the most powerful institution in Western civilization, religion.”
In a campaign in which he raised just over $200,000, Brat promised to “reject any [immigration] proposal that grants amnesty and undermines the fundamental rule of law. Adding millions of workers to the labor market will force wages to fall and jobs to be lost.” He opposes federal education policies such as the Common Core curriculum and No Child Left Behind. He wants a balanced-budget amendment and a “fair or flat tax.”
On the minimum wage, he told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd on Wednesday that “you cannot artificially make up wage rates.”
In campaign speeches on YouTube that had few viewings before his stunning victory, Brat is a commanding orator who mixes fiery rhetoric with academic references and self-deprecating humor. To unseat a powerful longtime incumbent who spent almost $5 million between January 2013 and May 21, 2014, Brat unleashed a withering populist critique of Cantor as an establishment Republican wedded to the status quo and unwilling to fight for fiscal restraint.
“He’s running on the Chamber of Commerce growth plan. If you’re in big business, he’s good for you, but if you’re in any other group it’s not so good for you,’’ Brat said in an April appearance at a church in Hanover County, Va.
Speaking at a lectern and barely consulting his notes, he said his blasts at Cantor were “not personal. I don’t do this out of spite or because I’m upset with him personally. But I believe in telling the truth. And the truth as a way of being stark sometimes. And it can be unpleasant.’’
Brat grew up in rural Michigan and earned his bachelor’s degree there at Hope College. In his campaign biography, he said he “tested his rural values against the intellectual elite while at Princeton,” but Brat never attended Princeton University. Rather, he earned his master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, which happens to be in the same town.
In 1995, at American University, Brat wrote a doctoral dissertation titled “Essays on Human Capital, Religion, and Growth.” John Willoughby, one of his professors there, said that while Brat’s interests in religion and economics were novel, he didn’t seem much interested back then in politics.
Willoughby was surprised when Brat emerged as a tea party-backed candidate.
“I never thought of him being ideological,” Willoughby said, adding that he wasn’t sympathetic to his former student's political views and didn’t “wish him well in the election.”
Brat joined Randolph-Macon College as an economics professor in 1996 and has served as chairman of the department and director of an ethics program that was based on the free-
market writings of Rand and funded by the BB&T bank. He is married and has two children, ages 15 and 11.
Rob Dick, who graduated from the college with an economics degree in 1999, remembered his former professor as “very fair, compassionate, understanding and extremely challenging.” He was also obsessed with ethics. Although fiscal polices were often discussed in class, Dick said Brat never revealed his political stance on the issues.
“He was somewhat guarded, and I think it’s because he didn’t want to sway anyone else’s opinion,” Dick said. “He would talk about political races, but he never revealed who he was for.”
But Dick said he always suspected Brat was conservative.
“I guess I was correct when I saw he was running against Cantor,” Dick said. AndWhen he saw Brat’s improbable victory, Dick said, “I was shocked and excited.”
So was Brat’s friend Dick White. Covered with sweat and grass clippings when he came into his house Tuesday night, White turned on the television and saw that Brat had slain a Goliath.
“My wife and I were sitting there looking at each other in disbelief, like I guess everybody else in the country,” said White, an insurance broker from Chesterfield County.
The two became friends after serving together on the board of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, a regional transit body . Brat brought a scholarly tone to the job, White said. The libertarian views that Brat espoused in academic writings and on the campaign didn’t express themselves in his work on a public body that administers toll roads, parking garages and a baseball stadium in the Richmond area.
“I wouldn’t call him a radical anything,” said White, who described himself as “neither a Republican nor a Democrat” and had praise for Cantor’s performance in office. “He came in from the perspective of a PhD economist. He was very down to earth. Factual, logical positions on everything.”
To others in Henrico County, Brat is a political cipher. “I don’t know David Brat if he walked in my house,” said John S. “Jack” Reid, a Republican who served in the House of Delegates from the county from 1990 to 2007. “That’s just the way it is.”
On Wednesday, Brat was still adjusting to his overnight transformation from political obscurity to tea party star. In the face of intense media interest, his campaign scheduled a news conference, then abruptly canceled it 30 minutes before it was to begin.
“Sorry, we’re kind of flying by the seat of our pants today,” a staffer said.
Steve Hendrix, Jerry Markon, Michael Laris and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.