Notorious for low turnout and little excitement, midterm elections seldom garner a lot of attention and the primaries that will determine who will win even less so. With primary season in full swing, interest has generally been limited to the local news and pundits in Washington, D.C. In spite of Congressí low approval ratings, incumbents have generally maintained their partyís seat, with open races (where the incumbent is retiring) being ignored until closer to the election.
Then the upset of the century happened.
Virginiaís 7th Congressional district covers suburban Richmond. The seat has been represented by Rep. Eric Cantor since 2001. The district has been solidly Republican for decades and since Cantor was House Majority Leader, few paid attention to the race Ė including Cantor. When the election results started coming in on June 10, the entire nationís attention was entirely focused on Virginiaís district 7.
For the first time in history, a sitting House Majority Leader had been defeated in the primary.
The results werenít even close. By an 11 point margin, Eric Cantor lost his seat to an unknown challenger.† He was so unknown that political writers and pundits were scrambling to find out who he was, discovering they had no coverage of him in their archives. By the time Dave Brat made his acceptance speech, the Republican establishment realized they had been stunned by the Tea Party.
Now, the race to replace Eric Cantor could become the battleground for the current state of American politics.
Like Republicans, Democrats were equally stunned by Cantorís defeat. They had trouble finding a suitable candidate for the party in the solidly Republican stronghold. Finally, just two days before the primary, the 7th District Democratic Committee nominated another political unknown Jack Trammell.† While the nation was discussing the shock of Cantorís defeat, Trammell and the Democrats were scrambling to simply give him a web presence, with his Facebook page going live just a few hours before polls opened.
With two unknown candidates with no political experience, this is truly a race of establishment outsiders.
Dave Bratís campaign was truly grassroots. The supporters of the 49-year-old economics professor are called the ďBrat PackĒ and filled with people who didnít feel Eric Cantor was conservative enough.† He won largely on an anti-immigration reform because Cantor had recently come out in support of giving the children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. He is currently the Chair of the Department of Economics and Business at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.
While the tea party generally feels higher education is a bastion of evil liberal thought, Brat is no liberal professor. His website proudly displays a photo of President Ronald Regan on his home page, along with the six key components of conservatism. To prove his tea party credentials, he proudly considers himself a ďtenther,Ē a small and misguided movement that believes that the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution makes many actions undertaken by the federal government unconstitutional. He is now seeking to be part of that federal government.
Even though he is now seeking to be a member of the same unconstitutional federal government, he is not a member of the establishment.
Brat raised just a little more than $200,000 during his entire campaign, which consisted largely of on-the ground-campaigning among Tea Party supporters. He was clearly outmatched and outspent by Eric Cantorís more than $5 million war chest.† With no apparent ties to typical conservative campaign supporters like the Koch brothers, Bratís campaign has shown that a grassroots candidate can win against big money in politics.
Still, the November election is a whole different ballgame.
Bratís challenger is another unknown and a colleague of Dave Brat’s. Jack Trammell is also a professor at Randolph-Macon College. He is the Director of the Honors program and teaches courses in disability studies in the sociology department. While Bratís previous research includes ďAn Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand,Ē Trammellís has focused on the difficulties of the disabled and learning a second language in higher education. He has written more than 21 books, including one about the economics of the Richmond slave trade.
Both candidates have had various forays into politics. Brat was a candidate to be the Republican Virginia delegate in 2011 and lost to the partyís candidate. Trammell was an active supporter in both the Dukakis and Clinton campaigns, but this is his first time running for office. Both candidates are married with children (Brat has two teenagers, and Trammellís youngest of seven children just graduated high school) and are transplants to Virginia.
Most importantly, neither has a large amount of money backing them.
On election night, no one from the Republican establishment expressed support for Dave Brat, still stunned at Cantorís defeat. While Cantor has said that he will vote for Brat in November, he, too, claims that there is a real problem within the party. This problem is the Tea Party and can prove to be an issue for Brat. The low turnout and redistricting helped bring out much more conservative and active voters. They are also vocally opposed to lobbyist money. In November he must appeal to the majority of Republicans who donít support the extremism of the tea party contingent.
He will also face a challenger who is positioning himself as a moderate and has a newly invigorated Democratic Party behind him.
Jack Trammell has a lot more ground to make up as Brat has been campaigning for six months and has a well established base. Trammell is just beginning to outline his policy positions and his website still only has one page more than a week after the primary. He is beginning to introduce himself to the Democratic base, having most recently appeared at an event with the Hanover County Democratic Committee. Expecting to run against Cantor, he now has a real shot in the reliably conservative district.
With a little over four months until the November election, the battle of the professors could prove to be the most interesting race to watch.