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A Pyrrhic Victory for the Tea Party

David Brat's victory in Tuesday's primary in Virginia means the end of immigration reform.
David Brat's victory in Tuesday's primary in Virginia means the end of immigration reform.
Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images

Immigration reform — already dead in this Congress — is even “deader.”

So is just about any other initiative in the waning months of the current House of Representatives, as Republican members shun taking any action that could become a campaign weapon against them in the remaining primaries. Not that big legislative initiatives were ever likely; now “nothing” is the agenda.

That — and more — is the fallout from this week’s political stunner, the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by political neophyte and tea party darling David Brat.

Brat’s successful campaign tied the anti-immigrant fervor that motivates much of the tea party to big business and to Cantor. “They get cheap labor,” he said of big business, “but everyone in the 7th district gets cheap wages.” Cantor, Brat suggested, followed the lead of business on immigration reform. “Eric is running on the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable principles,” he told a tea party audience. “They want amnesty for illegal immigrants. They want them granted citizenship. And it’s in the millions — 40 millions — coming in. If you add 40 million workers to our labor supply, what will happen to the wage rate for the average American?”

Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, apparently can’t count. The number of undocumented workers in the United States is roughly one-fourth the number he alleged in his attack on Cantor. Not only were his numbers off, but he also had no compunction about misrepresenting his opponent’s position on immigration reform.

Cantor hardly became an advocate of “amnesty.” He favored a watered-down, Republican version of the Dream Act, which would enable some illegal immigrants who entered the country as children to qualify for in-state tuition rates. Cantor refused to bring even that tepid reform to the floor of the House.

Brat’s victory — and what it does to immigration reform — demonstrates the overblown power of the Republican right. On Tuesday, under five percent of the residents of the Virginia 7th congressional district voted for Brat; that same day, a nationwide poll showed that “62% of Americans favor providing a way for immigrants who are currently living in the United States illegally to become citizens.” While six-in-ten Americans favor a reform that includes amnesty, it won’t happen because one-in-twenty residents of Virginia’s 7th district have the power to frighten Republican lawmakers.

As his depiction of Cantor’s position on immigration reform indicates, Brat can play fast-and-loose with the truth. He also can be a bit of a poseur in describing himself. His Web page says “he tested his rural values against the intellectual elite while at Princeton.” Granted, that does not say he went to Princeton University. But it leaves the false impression he did. Brat attended Princeton Theological Seminary, which has no connection with the renowned Ivy League school.

Brat has unorthodox views on religion and economics. The latter is his academic speciality, but he also has training in the former, as his stint at Princeton Theological Seminary indicates. He advocates a warmed-over version of Max Weber’s thesis on the Protestant ethic and its link to the rise of capitalism. "Give me a country in 1600 that had a Protestant-led contest for religious and political power," he has written, "and I will show you a country that is rich today.” An intriguing intellectual exercise, the Weber thesis rests on a spurious correlation.

Also intriguing is that a modern advocate of the connection between the Protestant Reformation and the rise of free-market capitalism is himself a Roman Catholic. While he attends a Catholic Church, he writes that Adam Smith — the apostle of free markets — “was from a Red State… because the culture and context which produced Smith was overwhelmingly Protestant.”

Brat appeals to Christian conservatives, particularly evangelical Protestants resident in his district, people who tend to vote in disproportionate numbers in primaries. It’s an appeal Cantor, who is Jewish, could not make. This is not to suggest that Cantor lost because of overt anti-Semitism; but it is to suggest that, as a Jew, Cantor could not and did not speak the language of Christian conservatives in the way Brat can and does. In his election night interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Brat said he won because “God acted through the people on my behalf.” That’s not rhetoric Cantor would have used.

Brat’s victory belies the oft-stated claim that the Republican establishment successfully has thwarted tea party insurgency in this election cycle. Instead, the tea party has demonstrated that it can still beat a powerful Republican insider. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the anti-immigrant rhetoric employed to defeat Cantor is precisely the rhetoric that will condemn the party to defeat after defeat in presidential elections, and eventually, in the not too-distant future, it will turn red states blue.

It’s all in the demographics.