Considering it’s the first time a sitting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in a primary since 1899, and Dave Brat was out-spent $5.4 million to $200,000, Brat pulled off our biggest political upset since George Nethercutt beat then-Speaker Tom Foley in 1994. The first time a House Speaker had been unseated since 1862.
By now most of us have already read and celebrated plenty of analysis of Brat’s statement win on Tuesday. But there are three things to learn from this upset that have largely gone unnoticed elsewhere, and provide a necessary blueprint for conservatives going forward.
1. Stop Splitting the Conservative Vote.
How many times have we seen multiple conservatives split the vote in the primary, only to hand the election to the establishment?
Been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt.
That would’ve also happened in Virginia’s 7th district primary on Tuesday, except a humble patriot named Peter Greenwald stepped aside a few months ago to coalesce support behind Brat. Greenwald, who has been serving his country since 1985, did what most of our other candidates are unwilling to do. He put honor and the cause ahead of ego and ambition. His willingness to put his children’s future first gave Brat time to focus on Cantor. If Greenwald doesn’t step aside, it’s quite likely Brat doesn’t win.
We need more candidates willing to do the similarly honorable thing in the future, or we’ll have to make this decision for them if they don’t. For example, right now the establishment is already determining whom their candidate will be 2016. They won’t run three candidates, and never do. They’ll run one. Meanwhile, we’ll run five-to-seven, and then slowly watch them pick each other off until it’s too late. We cannot allow that to happen again. Instead of getting emotionally or financially attached to a candidate going nowhere, we need to do the honorable thing and follow Greenwald’s lead.
Our futures cannot afford for the Republican Party establishment to blow another election in 2016.
2. We want high turnout primaries.
The conventional wisdom has always been lower turnout primaries helps the more principled candidates. But that conventional wisdom is based on the assumption the most conservative voters are the most likely to vote. That assumption would be wrong.
For example, right away NBC’s Chuck Todd tweeted that Brat took advantage of a low-turnout election, but the reality is the exact opposite is true. Turn-out in the Brat-Cantor primary was up 28% over 2012. So how did a dramatically under-funded candidate beat an incumbent that spent over 20 times what he did in a high-turnout election?
Because it is the most conservative voters who are increasingly staying home in these primaries (and the general). They have given up on the process, and think little will change regardless of which party is in power. Brat’s principled campaign moved those people from complacency to conviction. Look at this primary cycle the establishment has mostly dominated. They were almost all low-turnout primaries. The same people that had been voting for these establishment politicians since the days when cordless telephones were a modern marvel, returned to do the same. Meanwhile, turn-out in the McDaniel-Cochran primary in Mississippi was higher than expected, and McDaniel came out with the most votes heading into the run-off.
I first saw this in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. The Mitt Romney campaign’s entire strategy was based on a turn-out model of around 90,000 Iowans, which had been the historical average. However, over 125,000 Iowans showed up, and Romney was soundly defeated by Mike Huckabee. What happened is Huckabee motivated the grassroots in Iowa to turn-out well beyond expectations, and they did—for him.
Stop listening to ruling class propaganda. The truth is the more people who vote in Republican primaries the better off we are. But that means we need to run candidates like Brat that will put in the work and inspire those people to believe again.
3. It’s about our principles, stupid.
In his post-win interview on Fox, Brat refused to label his win as simply a Tea Party victory over the establishment. He said it’s bigger than that. Brat said there are still plenty of people who believe in the principles Republicans are supposed to stand for, but there aren’t a lot of Republicans following those principles.
He’s exactly right.
What Brat is articulating is perhaps the only path to saving the GOP from imploding, as its shaky coalition of constitutionalists and corporatists continue to war with each other. Probably the only way to overcome such factional fighting is to transcend it by leading on the principles in the party platform, which are the reason most of us become Republicans in the first place.
When elections are about issues/principles conservatives win. When issues are about personalities/group identity we don’t.