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Brat topples Cantor in show of grassroots enthusiasm over GOP establishment

June 11, 2014 at 6:16 PM EDT
The defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by David Brat shakes the stability of a more fragile GOP establishment. Gwen Ifill is joined by former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks and Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post to discuss Brat’s victory, as well as immigration and other issues that may be undermining the platform of moderate Republicans.
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GWEN IFILL: I want to talk to folks here with us a little bit about what Cantor’s defeat and Brat’s victory tells us about the future for Republican Party leadership.

Joining us are Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia and past chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks, a conservative grassroots organization based in Washington.

How did David Brat, Tom Davis, pull this off and surprise everybody? 

FMR. REP. TOM DAVIS, R, Va.: Well, this was basically a vote against the Republican establishment.

Eric Cantor, when he became a leader, instead of going after the president, had to start sitting down, passing bills, like the debt ceiling, reopening the government, that are very unpopular with the Republican base. On weekends, instead of being back home in his district, explaining the votes, he’s out across the country raising money for the Republican Party and electing other Republicans. And it created an atmosphere, basically a vacuum, where David Brat stepped in and was able to fill it.

GWEN IFILL: The theme throughout this campaign so far, this midterm campaign, has been the Republican insurgency vs. the Republican establishment.

When someone like Eric Cantor, who has maybe 100 percent rating from conservative groups, goes down, how do you define establishment?

FMR. REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, look, Eric is probably the most conservative member of the elected Republican leadership in the House. I think that’s pretty well-documented.

But the base is very, very angry at this point, that they don’t want to sit down and work with — they want somebody who’s going to express their anger and rage. And when you start sitting down and compromising, that’s not what they want to do right now. Things are not going well for the middle part of this country.

Their wages have been stagnant for 20 years. They have had an economic meltdown. They see bailouts for Wall Street, nothing for Main Street. They have seen two wars go sideways, and they’re very angry at this point.

GWEN IFILL: Adam Brandon, exactly how much money did FreedomWorks invest in David Brat?

ADAM BRANDON, FreedomWorks: Exactly zero dollars. We did not spend any money in that race?

GWEN IFILL: Why not?

ADAM BRANDON: Well, I wish we could. I wish we could invest in a lot of different races across the country. We just don’t really have the resources.

There’s races in Mississippi. There’s other races we’re working now in Oklahoma. We have got runoffs in Atlanta or in Georgia. So, there’s only so much money that can spread around. Money is definitely not the strong suit of what we have. What we have is energy.

GWEN IFILL: How do you think Eric Cantor stumbled?

ADAM BRANDON: Well, I think it’s — well, first of all, democracy works and the people back in his district just felt he got a little out of touch with them.

And I think that the candidate, when you hear how he ran his campaign, he says grassroots, grassroots, grassroots. And money cannot buy enthusiasm, but going door to door and shaking hands, you can build up quite a machine that way.

GWEN IFILL: What are the issues — I’m going to ask both of you this. I will start with you, Adam.

What are the issues that drives this kind of grassroots anger, activism, whatever term you want to use? We have heard today maybe it’s immigration or we have heard today it’s this insiderness of Washington.

Are there policy reasons why people seem to be throwing the bums out?

ADAM BRANDON: Sure.

I think if you go back even a few years ago, say starting in 2010, people wanted to send people to Washington to get the national debt and deficit under control. Today, the debt and deficit is $17 trillion and counting, and they’re not seeing that progress.

And for Eric Cantor, he was one of the people they were expecting to show some progress and actually bring in that debt and deficit down. And that didn’t happen, so they’re more than willing to find someone else to send to Washington to advance that cause.

GWEN IFILL: Tom Davis, is Eric Cantor seen in the eyes of folks as an appeaser in any way on issues like immigration reform?

FMR. REP. TOM DAVIS:Look, I think by virtue of being in leadership, you have to produce a legislative work product.

You can’t just shut everything down indefinitely. If you don’t have the Senate and the presidency, what are you to do on your own? And so they had to try to take what they felt were responsible actions, raising the debt ceiling, ending the shutdown.

And I think a lot of Republicans in his district and across the country said, we don’t see a very good deal here. We’re not getting what we hired you to do. And so just by virtue of being in the leadership and having to make these decisions, I think you become, to a degree, radioactive with this base.

GWEN IFILL: If I’m John Boehner, that makes me pretty nervous.

FMR. REP. TOM DAVIS:Well, John Boehner won reelection handily.

This is a Southern district. It’s a swing district. And understand this. The cultural mores in this country are changing very rapidly. People feel threatened all the way through, and they want somebody who is going to stand up for what they believe, not people that are going to sit there and try to compromise and work their way through it.

GWEN IFILL: So, no compromise?

ADAM BRANDON: Well, there’s word bipartisanship that gets thrown around.

And every single time I have seen a bipartisan deal, government still grows. And so what I think people are looking for is a bipartisan deal that — how do you shrink government, how do you reduce taxes, how do you reduce spending?

And so if the compromise means we’re just going to have to grow government, I don’t think the base in the Republican Party is that interested in that. What they’re looking for are the compromises that will actually shrink the government.

GWEN IFILL: I asked you both about immigration reform, and neither of you has really come back to that, so I want to come back to that one more time.

Did that idea, that comprehensive immigration reform should be part of the Republican agenda for the future of the party, backfire?

ADAM BRANDON: Well, when I talked with some activists, one of the things I heard from was they felt that this immigration bill was being done behind closed doors, the K Street and lobbyists were crafting this piece of legislation and they wanted more of a debate and they had some real concerns about the process.

GWEN IFILL: Tom?

FMR. REP. TOM DAVIS: Eric Cantor has been a good, strong conservative leader. I think he has had a position of responsibility.

I think, on immigration, he’s trying to manage his way through something that is very, very difficult. And I think he got a raw deal in terms of the way he was portrayed. But if you aren’t back in the district every week explaining it to rotary clubs and party caucuses and the like, you’re just not going to be able to sell it.

The grassroots over immigration right now are very upset. It is going to make it very difficult to get any kind of immigration bill through this year.

GWEN IFILL: He did today at his press conference that he went back to his district every week, actually.

FMR. REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, you may go back there, but if you aren’t there during the waking hours, what good does it do?

You have got to be three-dimensional and you have got to be out there. Eric is a team player, and was helping his colleagues get elected and raise money.

ADAM BRANDON: And what is he doing when he goes back? I saw in his campaign reports he spent more money on steak dinners and his campaign spent more money on steak houses than he did — actually than his opponent.

GWEN IFILL: In Washington.

Ed O’Keefe, final question to you. What are the next shoes that everybody is waiting for to drop up there?

ED O’KEEFE: Well, we will see exactly who prevails in the race for majority leader next week.

Important to remember it’s the majority leader who sets the schedule and the legislative agenda. So, until that new leader begins, we’re kind of in limbo as to what exactly the House might be doing. As you talked about, immigration probably a nonstarter, but, remember, there’s problems to sort out at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There are spending bills that have to be passed by the end of September and there are elections under way, all of this expected to be a factor and really the entire plan for the Republicans this year was no drama.

Well, it’s about as dramatic as it gets right now, and we will see how they sort it out.

GWEN IFILL: You got that right, a lot of drama.

Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post, Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks and former Congressman Tom Davis, thank you all very much.

ADAM BRANDON: Thank you.