When Dave Brat was sworn in to Congress this month after winning a special election, it was clear his new colleagues did not know him very well.
Two new congressmen from New Jersey and North Carolina got warm jokes and personal stories. The new lawmaker from Virginia’s 7th District listened instead as his résumé as a college professor — Brat holds the only economics PhD in Congress — was read back to him by two of the state’s senior House members, Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R) and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D).
Yet Brat got the biggest round of whoops and cheers from the visitor gallery, where a large crowd of the conservative activists who had helped him unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary had gathered. Many had known Brat for years.
As he finishes out the remaining weeks of Cantor’s term, Brat will begin to navigate a tricky balance between the grass-roots supporters who propelled him to office and the lawmakers he will need to have an impact.
“He’s going to stick straight to his values,” said Larnie Allgood, a tea party activist from Brat’s district. “If he has to go it alone, he’ll go it alone.”
Off the floor after the ceremony, Brat was trying not to start out that way.
“Where are you from in Indiana?” he asked one lawmaker. “Good, good. Awesome.” As reporters tried to ask him about his agenda, he begged off, saying he had “to go find my crew.”
Leading up to the Thanksgiving recess, Brat estimated that he had met 300 of his 434 new co-workers.
“He’s got a good gauge to understand you’ve got to know the details and the policy, but you’ve got to know the people to get things done,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, a Republican who represents Virginia’s 1st District.
Brat also is taking nothing for granted in an institution that is new to him. When it’s time to vote, for instance, every device in his office beeps at once.
“The senior guys laugh at me,” the new congressman said. “I’ve got everything turned on.”
He doesn’t want to miss anything.
Before losing to Brat in June, Cantor was the leading candidate to be the next House speaker. After Cantor resigned, a special election was held that coincided with the general election. Brat won both and was sworn in before his freshman orientation. That left him to figure out immediate concerns on his own, such as “how to vote and procedurally, how to get from building to building, where to be.”
His early entrance to Congress carries a few perks. He got to pick his new office before the other freshman lawmakers; it’s just down from the space he took over from Cantor in the lame-duck session.
From behind his temporary desk in the stripped-bare space, Brat said he is willing to work with anybody, but he has no particular allies or role models in mind.
“If you want to know who I’m aligned with, I’m aligned with James Madison and Adam Smith,” said Brat, who has taught ethics and economics at Randolph Macon College for 19 years. “They’re the best of the best, and I only choose the best.”
But he has been huddling with the Virginia delegation, a tight-knit group that meets at least once a month. He said he’s been surprised by the “graciousness” of the lawmakers he’s met after forcing out a House leader who had spent years cultivating close ties. Born in Detroit, Brat has connected with several members who have ties to Michigan.
“He’s acclimated very well: He’s well-liked by his colleagues, he’s listening, he’s reaching out to others. I think he’s going to be a fine member,” said Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia’s 2nd District. “Every indication is that he can be true to what he ran on and also be a member that finds and advances common ground.”
Brat said he’s ready to compromise — as long as it’s a compromise that saves money. He said he isn’t willing to wait to tackle his biggest issue, entitlement spending.
“I came here to solve the biggest problems first,” he said. “That’s what economics and the science of efficiency teaches. You first look for the opportunities that maximize happiness, or maximize potential for the nation as a whole first, and so that’s exactly what I'm doing.” He’s put in for spots on the Financial Services and Budget committees.
If movement stalls in Congress, he said, he’s ready to take his message to a national audience, on stages or television shows. Brat has pledged to visit every county in his district once a month, in part to educate constituents on his economic proposals. Replacing a congressman many constituents complained had grown out of touch, Brat plans to spend as much time in the district as possible.
“He’s not interested in being ideological,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a firebrand known for taking her causes to the national stage and an early Brat supporter. “He wants to be successful.”
Former congressman Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Republican who preceded Cantor in the 7th District, said he spoke to Brat both before and after the primary. He advised him to “go slow on signing up on pledges to always vote a certain way on different issues — you don’t know what the future’s going to hold.”
Brat said he has signed numerous pledges, but after a spokesman interjected, the congressman corrected himself, saying he was referring to mostly nonbinding questionnaires. The only pledge he recalls committing to is the anti-tax one written by Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist.
He refers often to his own six principles, which can be briefly summarized as a belief in the importance of free enterprise, equal rights, fiscal restraint, individual liberty, strong national defense and faith in God.
“I’ll listen to everybody; I’m listening to all groups, but my principles are pretty stark,” he said.
In his first couple weeks, Brat has not shown an appetite for early confrontation. He supported House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) in the caucus leadership vote.
“I said I’d favor the person who most closely followed [my] principles, so no challenger emerged, so I followed my logic,” he said. On immigration, an issue that became a fault line in his primary with Cantor, Brat said he was waiting to see what strategy his caucus develops.
“I don’t know what’s at play, what kind of moves they will make,” he said. “So I’ll just have to listen in.”