Rep. Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia wasn’t the only Washington giant to suffer a blow Tuesday. So too did the financial industry, a major lobbying presence in D.C. whose top firms had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the House majority leader’s primary campaign, only to see him fall to a candidate who views Big Finance with pointed suspicion.
To be sure, the challenger, economics professor David Brat, did not base his campaign solely – or even mainly – on financial issues. Rather, a belief that Mr. Cantor had gone soft on illegal immigration pushed some of the Republican base into Mr. Brat’s column during the GOP primary, analysts say.
Yet, throughout the campaign, the tea party-supported underdog who raised $231,000 to Cantor’s $5.7 million, also lambasted the incumbent for his close ties to big business and Wall Street, perhaps striking a chord with Republican voters who wanted the grassroots to exert more control over their party’s agenda, and corporate interests to exert less.
Along these lines, the only national conservative figure who touted Brat before the election, radio host Laura Ingraham, credited the challenger’s success to “fury at the GOP establishment” and Cantor’s association with corporate executives, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In an interview with radio host Flint Engelman, Brat attacked Cantor for watering down the STOCK Act of 2012, which was designed to bolster insider-trading regulations and add transparency to the financial lobbying process.
According to Politico, Brat also went after Cantor for cozying up to the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce, and he once said financial “crooks” were in Cantor’s Rolodex.
“All of the investment banks, up in New York and D.C., they should have gone to jail,” he said to a tea party audience in Mechanicsville, Va., in May.
Cantor’s close ties to Wall Street were reflected in his campaign fund-raising. The Wall Street Journal cited the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics as reporting that Cantor raised $1.4 million from the financial-services industry in this election cycle.
As of Jan. 1, 2014, when the last Federal Election Commission report was released to the public, Cantor’s three biggest campaign donors were all major investment corporations: the Blackstone Group, which had donated $65,000 over the previous 12 months, Scroggin Capital Management, which had given $40,400, and Goldman Sachs, which had given $26,600.
By contrast, Brat comes across as someone “who sees the real villain as corporate America and its addiction to government largesse,” New Yorker’s Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza wrote Wednesday. “Brat is the Elizabeth Warren of the right.”
In a speech to supporters Tuesday night it was perhaps unsurprising that Brat assumed the narrative of a grassroots David overcoming a corporate Goliath. “What you proved tonight is that dollars don’t vote – you do,” he said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
How durable that grassroots philosophy proves to be remains to be seen, Brat’s victory notwithstanding.
"We shouldn't make the mistake to think that money doesn't matter a lot,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of congressional history at Princeton University. “Sometimes money can be defeated by grassroots pressure, especially in a contest within one district. But in general money still plays a huge role in campaigns and having enough money is a requirement to even compete."