2014-06-04 / Front Page

Retreading the GOP?

Cantor’s tea party challenger gains ground, bucks national trend
By Jim McConnell

Brat Brat If one longtime legislator’s analysis is correct, nothing short of the state Republican Party’s future survival is at stake as 7th District voters head to the polls for the GOP’s June 10 primary.

State Sen. John Watkins (R-10th District), a man not normally given to verbal flights of fancy, said during an interview last week that if college professor Dave Brat is able to defeat seven-term incumbent Eric Cantor, “the tea party will have successfully destroyed the Republican Party as we know it in Virginia.”

Such a scenario would’ve seemed ludicrous as recently as two months ago. Cantor had all the money, all the name recognition and an overwhelming majority of loyal voters in a district he’s represented since 2001. Heck, the guy was all but guaranteed to be the next Speaker of the House.

All Brat had was passion and a copy of the state Republican creed.

Cantor Cantor But while “establishment” Republicans such as Cantor have effectively snuffed out tea partybacked challenges in other states – most notably, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell crushed a well-funded bid by Matt Bevin in Kentucky – Brat’s campaign is gathering steam as it hurtles toward the finish line.

Last month, a boisterous crowd of tea party supporters booed Cantor mercilessly during the 7th District Republican convention in his home base of Henrico County, then stunned Cantor by rejecting his hand-picked choice for convention chair.

“People are smelling blood in the water,” said Tom White, a former Cantor loyalist and conservative blogger who lives in Hanover.

White enjoys the irony that many voters in a district gerrymandered to provide Cantor an electoral buffer against Democratic challengers now regard him as not conservative enough.

The district includes the northern-most section of Chesterfield, a county where the GOP’s far right wing already has made its presence felt over the past eight months.

First, anti-tax forces rallied opposition to the county’s meals tax proposal last fall, dealing it a convincing defeat while a similar measure was approved by voters in neighboring Henrico.

Aided by Americans for Prosperity, a Northern Virginia-based conservative nonprofit affiliated with billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, tea party loyalists also successfully applied political pressure to Chesterfield’s three Republican supervisors during a county-wide discussion about increasing the property tax rate.

The Board of Supervisors initially advertised a 3-cent rate hike. By the time supervisors got around to actually voting, they had cut it down to 1 cent and added some spending cuts to partially offset the revenue increase.

“The tea party folks know that the establishment wants to marginalize them and limit their influence,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond-based political analyst. “What you have to understand is that on a local level, the tea party has organized very effectively. Their efforts are bearing fruit in many areas.”

Will the tea party’s grassroots strength in the largely rural 7th District ultimately make any difference in the outcome of the June 10 primary? Holsworth remains skeptical.

“To have an unfunded candidate knock off the House Majority Leader – that would be a real stunner,” he said.

Pete Greenwald, a teacher at James River High who launched his own campaign against Cantor before exiting the race and throwing his support behind Brat, believes that voters are starting to realize that Cantor and other establishment Republicans no longer adhere to many of the principles that made the party a national force.

“I think that’s what is great about Dave Brat’s campaign: He’s running on the Republican creed and he’s saying, ‘This is who we’re supposed to be. Are we going to support this or not?’” Greenwald said.

While congratulating local tea party supporters for finding in Brat “a very intelligent candidate with credentials,” Watkins decried their all-or-nothing approach to politics as harmful to the GOP.

“You can’t run a party like that. There has to be some willingness to compromise, but they don’t want that,” he said. “They don’t want to be Republicans. They want it their way, and that’s not what governing is about.”

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