This week was supposed to be the week that tea party activist David Brat finally became a cause for national conservative leaders.
Apparently, final exams got in the way.
Brat, a primary challenger to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), had arranged to attend two exclusive meetings Wednesday: anti-tax activist Grover Norquist’s weekly breakfast at the Washington offices of Americans for Tax Reform, and the Weyrich lunch, a Capitol Hill gathering of hard-right operatives named after the late conservative strategist Paul Weyrich.
Calls were made, details were confirmed and on Monday, Brat said in an interview that he was eager to make the trip from Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which covers much of solidly Republican suburban Richmond. He was ready to deliver his pitch to the grass-roots power brokers who have lifted conservative unknowns with their mailing lists and social-media reach.
Brat said he thought that once he got buy-in from them, his poorly funded campaign could quickly become a rally point for conservatives in Virginia and elsewhere who are frustrated with Cantor and the House Republican leadership, and bring money and attention to his long-shot bid ahead of the June 10 primary.
Brat’s ambitious itinerary, however, fell apart Tuesday afternoon, and he was forced to cancel his appearances, campaign manager Zachary Werrell said. Aides sent apologetic e-mails to Norquist’s staff and the hosts of the Weyrich lunch.
The official word from Werrell was that Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, had academic obligations.
“He had school stuff to take care of,” Werrell said in an interview Wednesday night. “It’s the week before finals.”
Brat’s about-face came days after a surge of resentment toward Cantor took over a meeting of the 7th District Republican Committee, where the majority leader was booed and heckled and where activists voted out his longtime ally as committee chairman.
Many Republicans viewed the scene as a sign of the Virginia GOP’s inability to unify its divided ranks — and a warning of Cantor’s vulnerability in his own back yard.
But most Republicans maintained in the aftermath of the tumultuous meeting that Cantor would nonetheless easily win his primary. On Wednesday, Brat’s actions gave them reason for even more certainty.
Werrell acknowledged that the campaign missed a rare opportunity to win friends and showcase Brat, and he said that Brat often has to adjust his schedule because he is not a full-time candidate.
“I wish Dave could do this full time, but that’s not the reality of the situation,” Werrell said. “We have a full-time operation but he has a job. Professional politicians like Eric Cantor can campaign all the time; we’re lay people.”
As Werrell spoke on the phone, volunteers clamored around him, asking for signs and call lists. Brat was not there. Werrell said the scene reflects the limitations of running as a political outsider. He would like for the campaign to be as aggressive as their supporters, but with $40,000 in the bank, according to first-quarter federal filings, they can do only so much to build momentum.
That’s why Wednesday mattered; it was a chance to mingle and make a jump to the next level without spending cash.
With Brat on campus, the day’s meetings went on as planned.
Morton Blackwell, the Weyrich lunch’s host and a Republican National Committee member from Virginia, said he was disappointed that Brat did not make it to his conclave, which is held in the roped-off basement of Ebenezers coffeehouse a few blocks from the Heritage Foundation and Union Station.
Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) and other GOP officials and their advisers were seen taking the stairs down to the meeting. Some said they thought Brat would be there.
“It is a big day for him, and he had told somebody that he was going to come, so God knows what else intervened,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell said that he probably will not endorse a candidate in the Cantor-Brat race, but that he is sympathetic toward tea party upstarts.
“Generally, I don’t believe in the divine right of incumbents,” he said.
At 10 a.m., Norquist walked into his conference room, surrounded by dozens of conservatives sipping coffee and spreading reduced-fat cream cheese on bagels. Interest groups passed out fliers; no one from Brat’s campaign was there. A few minutes later, the group began to hear from guest speakers.
Spotted in the room was Neil Bradley, Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, touching base with conservatives who are at times Cantor’s critics, and updating them about Cantor’s legislative agenda.
Bradley’s presence was a reminder that, as much as Brat may dream of defeating Cantor, the man widely considered likely to be the next speaker of the House is well-organized, well-funded and more plugged in than most Republicans. To beat him, you probably need to show up.