Dave Brat has a 23-year-old campaign manager, raised about $200,000 for his campaign and just took out Eric Cantor.
In the space of a few hours on Tuesday night, Brat went from being just a relatively unknown economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., (student body: 1,312) to a political star by successfully primarying the House majority leader and shocking Washington.
He got started in Virginia politics by volunteering for state Sen. Walter Stosch from 2005-2012, giving Stosch advice on education policy. One longtime Virginia Republican insider said this is an interesting part of Brat's ascent, as Stosch spent more than a million dollars in 2007 rebuffing a primary challenger who targeted him from the right.
“He actually came in through the other side,” said the source, who was shocked by Brat’s win. “There’s definitely irony. You came in with Walter Stosch!”
Brat's acquaintances and supporters describe him as very affable. Zachary Werrell, his campaign manager -- who turned 23 in May, interviewed with Brat for the job in a Panera Bread restaurant and got into politics because of his admiration for Ron Paul -- said his boss's attitude played a big role in his win.
“You have a very disliked incumbent, and you have a very likable candidate, and you tell the truth,” Werrell said. “And when your opponent spends millions of dollars being extremely negative and aggressive, that backfires — bad. It was kind of a perfect storm.”
Werrell said his mentor is Christopher Doss, deputy director of grassroots programs at the Leadership Institute. Werrell has been staying on Doss’ couch. And those kind of grassroots connections — which Brat’s affability helped nurture — played a key role in their win.
At the convention for Virginia's 7th Congressional District, this aspect of Brat's personality came across strongly, Werrell said.
“He said, ‘I’m not running against Eric Cantor as a person,’ ” Werrell said. “ ‘I’m running against Eric Cantor on policy, it’s nothing personal.’ And that’s the truth.”
That message stood in sharp contrast to Cantor’s negative ads, which intoned that Brat was a “liberal professor.”
And that negative message enraged grassroots activists in the district. Travis Witt, head of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation and a member of the state central committee, said mailboxes in the 7th District overflowed with anti-Brat campaign material. And that seems to have backfired, since -- based on person-to-person interactions -- people who met Brat typically liked him.
“Dave Brat is not a liberal college professor,” Witt said, citing a charge Cantor levied against his challenger. “He’s a very conservative college professor.”
Brat got his undergraduate degree in business from Hope College in Michigan. He went on to get a master's of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. His influences include Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as John Calvin, and he said in January that this background informs his conservative views on economics and fiscal responsibility.
“I've always found it amazing how we have the grand swath of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we lost moral arguments on the major issue of our day,” he said then in an interview for an article published at National Review Online.
Brat currently heads Randolph-Macon’s department of economics and business. He once authored a paper called “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand."
And now that professor has a good chance at a seat in the House of Representatives.
“This district is tailor-made for Republicans,” said Tucker Martin, a Richmond communications consultant who worked as a spokesman for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. “You've got to think he's the prohibitive favorite to take a seat in Congress.”