There's no shortage of explanations for why Eric Cantor became the first House majority leader to lose a primary since the job was created in 1899. But while it's useful to ask why Cantor lost, it's also worth wondering about the flip side: Why did Dave Brat, Cantor's barely funded, little-known challenger, win?
Obviously these questions are highly related, but they are not exactly the same. The first views the primary contest result through the prism of Cantor's many weaknesses; the second views it through the prism of Brat's strengths. To put it another way: It's not just about what Cantor did poorly; it's also about what Brat did well.
One of the most interesting possible answers to that second question comes from The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, who describes Brat as "the Elizabeth Warren of the right"—a populist crusader who targeted the wealthy, connected, and powerful rather than campaigning against welfare moocherism:
From what I've observed, Brat has not talked like a forty-seven-per-cent conservative complaining about how tax dollars are being shovelled to the undeserving poor (although maybe he does believe that and didn't emphasize it in the campaign). He comes across, instead, like a ninety-nine-per-cent conservative who sees the real villain as corporate America and its addiction to government largesse. One of his biggest applause lines is about how bankers should have gone to jail after the 2008 financial crisis. Brat is the Elizabeth Warren of the right.
The divisions within the Republican Party since 2010 are not always obvious from the shorthand we commonly use: Tea Party versus establishment, conservatives versus moderates, outsiders versus insiders. Brat's stump speech, inspired by the country's top corporate-lobbying group, was notable for the clarity with which it defined these often opaque categories. Eric Cantor "is running on the Chamber of Commerce growth plan," Brat told a small gathering at the Life Church in Hanover, Virginia, last April. "The Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable. If you're in big business, he's good for you. But if you're in any other group, it's not good for you."
What Wall Street was asking from Washington was, "Just keep it stable for us so we can make profits." Brat went on: "I'm an economist. I'm pro-business. I'm pro-big business making profits. But what I'm absolutely against is big business in bed with big government. And that's the problem."
It's certainly possible to take the Warren analogy too far; Brat doesn't have the same devoted following as Warren or her Ivy League academic prestige, and he lacks a parallel position within the conservative firmament. But it's not a bad comparison, as far as it goes. And it touches on some of the ways that liberal populism and conservative or libertarian-tinged populism often overlap—the distrust of elites, frustration with those in power, and anger over the ways that big government and big business, so often assumed to be titanic opponents, work in tandem against the interests of the masses.
It also suggests the political power of this populist critique, even on the right. In recent years, liberals have successfully channeled anger against the joining of businesses interests and political power, but Republican politicians have not been nearly as effective in their attempts to do so, despite the current of anti-elite sentiment that runs through the Tea Party. There are many reasons why the GOP hasn't been as successful (its reliance on corporate donors, its professional connections with corporate lobbying groups, the fact that many of its candidates are themselves part of the business class), but one reason why is that criticism of business, big or small, is simply not part of the identity the GOP has built for itself over the last several decades. That's not the language it speaks; the GOP is the party that represents business, not the party that criticizes corporate power.
Dave Brat, on the other hand, knew how to speak that language, and it turned out to be particularly effective against an eager, ambitious establishmentarian widely viewed as out of touch with the local interests of his constituents.
In the coming months, I suspect we'll see more Republican politicians follow his lead and attempt to mount a similar critique of intertwined corporate and business power. That would be a positive development, in my view, for a party that has too often been narrowly beholden to large corporate interests at the expense of larger governing priorities.
But simply mimicking Brat's rhetoric won't be enough. Brat's win showed the power of this approach as a critique, especially against a high-status business-friendly politician like Cantor, but what free-market populists and the ninety-nine-percenters of the right need is more than a critique; they also need an agenda. Brat so far seems to be surprisingly weak on even basic policy details: Asked about his position on the minimum wage yesterday, he declined to answer directly, begging off by citing lack of sleep. That's not the sort of sign that suggests firm legislative commitments, much less a clear and motivating agenda.
Elizabeth Warren's influence and popularity have as much to do with what she's for—both in the big picture and in terms of specific policy goals—as what she's against. What Brat did well was critique his own party, and channel frustration with its current leadership. But for Brat or any other Republican to become the Warren of the right, they'll need to offer more than a critique; they'll need to suggest a forward direction as well.