Is David Brat really a tea partyer?

David Brat, the man who toppled House majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary, shows how vague the term 'tea party' is. It really means 'anti-establishment activist,' one expert says.

P. Kevin Morley/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
Dave Brat is congratulated by a supporter after defeating Republican Rep. Eric Cantor in the Republican primary for the Seventh Congressional District in Virginia on Tuesday in Henrico, Va.

Is it accurate to call Dave Brat a tea party member? After all, that’s a label that Mr. Brat himself rejects. Well, maybe “rejects” is too strong a word. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Brat, the man who shocked Washington by toppling House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia in a GOP primary, doesn’t want to be stuck in a media-generated political category that’s supposed to define an adherent’s views.

Asked yesterday by Politico if he’s a tea partyer, Brat replied that he wishes the press would stop describing his victory as a triumph of the insurgent Republican right wing. He’s running on a platform of free markets and traditional GOP principles, he said.

“I owe Republicans, tea party, grass roots – they all came together and helped me win tonight. Utter thanks, but the press is trying to do this sound bite stuff and put you in a little hole, and peg you in one way or the other,” Brat told Politico.

That’s true about the press, of course. But another way to describe “peg you in one way or another” might be “summarize your worldview in a way that’s quick and easy to understand.” Stories are short, and position papers are long. We do the best we can.

And at this point Brat probably wants to be seen as more than a tea party product. He’s facing a general election, albeit in a GOP-leaning district, and wants to appeal to independents and even conservative Democrats (they still exist, particularly in the South) who might be turned off by the “tea party” label.

That said “tea party” may be as much descriptive of attitude and style as of policy choice. According to political scientist Ron Rapoport of The College of William & Mary, the tea party per se constitutes a majority of the active Republican Party. It’s a big tent itself, with only about a quarter of self-identified tea party activists labeling themselves libertarians. The better term to capture what many people mean by “tea party activist” is “anti-establishment activist,” Professor Rapoport says.

That certainly applies to Brat, given that he ran against a pillar of his party establishment, the House majority leader. As analyst Sean Trende writes at RealClearPolitics, an anti-Washington mood at the grass roots could have played a big role in Representative Cantor’s downfall.

“The Republican base is furious with the Republican establishment, especially over the Bush years,” writes Mr. Trende.

During the early to mid-2000s, the GOP controlled Congress and the White House, and what the country got was increased domestic spending through such programs as Medicare’s Part D and a TARP bailout of Wall Street when the economy crashed. That’s the view of anti-Washington Republican voters, in any case.

And Brat did his best to tie Cantor directly to these policies. He was particularly tough on Cantor’s links to Wall Street and his role as a top party fundraiser.

“All the investment banks in ... those guys should have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, they went on Eric’s Rolodex, and they are sending him big checks,” said Brat on the campaign trail last month, according to a John Judis piece on the subject in The New Republic.

With this language, Brat was drawing on an old tradition in US politics, writes Mr. Judis: economic populism. On the left, it has its roots in figures such as Huey Long of Louisiana. On the right, it echoes in the words of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan.

“The Tea Party is a heterogeneous movement, but many of its members, and many of the local candidates it champions, are rightwing populists. And that was certainly true of Brat,” writes Judis.

Thus Brat’s anti-immigration language has targeted the big businesses that he says benefit from cheap labor. He’s also charged that illegal immigration drives down wages for Seventh District workers.

In sum, Brat may have managed to channel many of the strains of thought which contribute to the tea party movement and direct them against a somewhat stiff establishment Republican who spent too much time raising money for the party as a whole and not enough time ensuring his staff was doing adequate constituent service.

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

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