Cantor's fall haunts lawmakers

Cantor's fall haunts lawmakers

One year later, the aftershocks from Tea Party favorite Dave Brat’s stunning win over then-House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorBottom line Virginia GOP candidates for governor gear up for convention Cantor: 'Level of craziness' in Washington has increased 'on both sides' MORE (R-Va.) are still rippling across Washington.  

Once a little-known economics professor from Randolph-Macon College, Brat has been fielding calls from conservatives around the country mulling whether to mount a primary challenge of their own GOP member of Congress. White House hopefuls like Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment Masks and vaccines: What price freedom? MORE (R-Ky.) and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE have been wooing Brat, campaigning and raising money for him in his district.  


And on the House floor, Brat’s Republican colleagues constantly rib him, thanking him for sending the “warning signal” to spend more time back in their districts — or risk getting unceremoniously booted from office like Cantor.

Even Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio), facing a primary challenge of his own, is doing more these days to show he’s a relatable, average Joe who’s stayed true to his roots. His team has churned out videos on YouTube showing him walking to his favorite breakfast joint, brining a Thanksgiving turkey and caring for his lawn mower.

“He may be the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, but he still irons his own shirts, washes his own dishes, and yes … cuts his own grass,” reads a caption with the lawn mower video.

In an hourlong interview in his Cannon Building office, Brat said he’s received countless phone calls in recent months from conservative grassroots activists looking to follow in his footsteps and launch potential primary challenges against their own member of Congress. They all want to know how an underfunded novice with poor name ID unseated the man many believed was the Speaker-in-waiting.

“The playbook was just to run on fundamental positions that I think are true. It’s in the DNA of my district, and they wanted someone who represents that,” said Brat, whose district includes James Madison’s Montpelier estate.

Brat kicked off his campaign last year at St. John’s Church in Richmond, where Patrick Henry famously uttered the words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is just down the road.

“I’m flanked by all sides by American greatness, so it’s not like I have some original message,” Brat said. “I just pay attention to the fundamentals because I think they got it right.”

In his first months in office, Brat has shown he can’t be co-opted: He voted against BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE for Speaker, despite telling The Hill he would support him, bucked leadership on crucial votes on trade and immigration and joined a group of conservative rebels known as the House Freedom Caucus.

But so far, the 50-year-old freshman hasn’t broken out the pitchfork. In fact, one of the most prominent items in the congressman’s tiny office is a photograph of him standing with Boehner during his swearing-in ceremony — a meeting Brat called “thrilling.”

At a White House reception, Brat razzed President Obama, telling him to get him into a meeting with Pope Francis, and “I’ll help solve the world’s problems.”

He participates in bipartisan Virginia delegation gatherings and still gets invited to regular leadership briefings for freshmen. “I’m still on the list,” he said.

And while many of his Republican colleagues still remain close to Cantor, none have expressed any hostility or spoken an ill word to his face.

“That’s been the shocker. Zip. Zero. I thought there’d be some tension,” Brat said. “I’ve had a couple outside folks who’ve given me the cold shoulder, but I can count them on one hand.”

Boasting a shoestring budget of $200,000, Brat set off a political earthquake last June, when he crushed Cantor by double digits, despite being outraised nearly 30 to 1. He did it by painting Cantor as soft on immigration and lamenting that the leader was more concerned with big-dollar D.C. fundraisers and his political rise than his constituents.

Brat had help from conservative radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, who amplified the calls to oust Cantor from office.

Now, the sight of the “dragon slayer” Brat meandering around the Capitol complex is a powerful reminder that no lawmaker is truly safe — no matter if they are a longtime incumbent, powerful chairman or majority leader. And some credit Brat with killing any chance of immigration reform this Congress, given that Republicans are now shying away from the hot-button issue.

There were certainly other warning signs before Cantor. In 2012, Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock unseated longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), only to be defeated himself by a Democrat in the general election. And that same year, large-animal veterinarian Ted YohoTheodore (Ted) Scott YohoOcasio-Cortez on Taylor Greene: 'These are the kinds of people that I threw out of bars all the time' Ocasio-Cortez: 'No consequences' in GOP for violence, racism 7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics MORE defeated 24-year Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.).

Two years earlier, Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization MORE (Fla.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeEconomy adds just 235K jobs in August as delta hammers growth Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit Afghanistan fiasco proves we didn't leave soon enough MORE (Utah) rode the Tea-Party wave to the Senate, knocking off establishment-backed candidates.

But Cantor’s defeat was different, startling veteran lawmakers who had been snoozing through the other GOP upsets. Ask any Republican on Capitol Hill today, and they can tell you where they were when they learned Cantor had been dethroned.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) had just arrived at a birthday fundraiser for Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) at Del Frisco’s Grille, a steakhouse near the White House. She would later tell McHenry that Cantor’s unexpected loss had made it her worst birthday ever. A few blocks away, Rep. Bill FloresWilliam (Bill) Hose FloresThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it MORE (R-Texas) was sitting down to dinner with Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Steve Scalise (R-La.) and other committee members at Acadiana, a Cajun and Creole restaurant.

“It was a wake-up call to everybody that you can never forget what’s going on back in your district with the people who put you in office,” said Flores, who succeeded Scalise as RSC chairman in the leadership shake-up following Cantor’s defeat.

“No matter what your position is in the conference,” he added, “you always have to pay attention to what the people back home are saying.”

For now, Washington hasn’t seen a wave of grassroots activists launching GOP primaries against entrenched Republicans. But Brat’s underdog victory has provided inspiration for at least one challenger making a run at Speaker Boehner.   

When voters tell J.D. Winteregg it’s futile to go up against the Boehner machine, the 33-year-old grain elevator manager simply points to Brat’s historic upset.

“He’s certainly been a driving force in this race. He proved that the establishment can be beat, and that is something we’re using in our campaign,” Winteregg told The Hill. “He’s been a huge inspiration to us.”