Establishment Republicans are in shock over the Virginia primary loss by GOP House majority leader Eric Cantor at the hands of Dave Brat, an economics professor and Tea Party-backed political novice.
Many conservatives chalked up Cantor’s defeat to his support for immigrat ion reform, which they interpret as “amnesty and citizenship for lawbreakers.” And Brat made remarks ciritical of immigration reform. But a survey released by the liberal Public Policy Polling found some 70 percent of voters in Cantor’s district favor reform that includes securing the border, barring businesses from hiring illegals, but also allowing undocumented aliens a way to legally remain in the U.S.
Establishment Republicans must understand the deeper causes for Cantor’s defeat and learn lessons that will better ensure general election victories. And those who back candidates like Brat must understand what errors they must avoid in order to avoid election defeats.
Such an understanding begins with a recognition that the GOP is in a three-way civil war.
The first GOP faction, establishment Republicans, includes Cantor, House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. They want to keep the welfare state but tweak it to make it work a little better, perhaps with some free-market reforms. And they would also argue that it’s one thing to talk about abolishing the welfare state, as do many Tea Partiers, but it’s quite another matter to actually pass legislation to pare the state down.
The problem is that these establishment Republicans present no long-term coherent vision or guiding principles for changing a corrupt paternalist and crony-capitalist regime, a system that is rightly seen by many voters as rotten to the core but propped up by Republicans and Democrats alike. Such voters see Cantor and others like him as flip-flopping pragmatists who are not even pragmatic since they’ve been unable to counter the growth of government under President Obama. Such disillusioned voters took their frustration out on Cantor.
A second GOP faction, extreme social conservatives, includes Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. They give priority to an agenda that limits civil liberties and is often even squishy on economic liberty, with government wielding power to support “family values.” Establishment Republicans rightly worry that candidates from this faction will lose elections the way Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock did in running for U.S. Senate from Missouri and Indiana, respectively, in 2012. Both candidates tripped over their foolish statements about abortion, scaring away the growing number of socially-liberal voters. Democrat Party leaders love such easy-target Republicans!
How, establishment Republicans will ask, can the GOP do anything to stop the growth of government if they can’t win the Senate?
The third GOP faction actually wants to roll back the power of government and begin to dismantle the welfare state. But such economic conservatives come in two flavors. Some are more libertarian, favoring both economic and personal liberty, e.g., the freedom to form same-sex marriages.Others are more socially conservative. But unlike their more extreme comrades, their priority is to fight the policies of Obama and his ilk, which are sinking the economy, reducing living standards, and destroying personal autonomy.
Winning candidate Dave Brat might offer a winning paradigm. Brat the economics professor campaigned on the economy, on the problem of the skyrocketing federal debt, and on government direction and regulation. Brat has written about Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, and even about moral foundations based in Ayn Rand. While not an Objectivist, he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged.
He is also a strong supporter of the Tenth Amendment, which states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Wow, a politician who takes the Constitution seriously! And this is an appeal to a principle that voters can appreciate. It is not the usual pandering and the usual mealy-mouthed promising that treats voters like spoiled children who the candidates will offer to spoil even more in return for votes.
Brat has a Master of Divinity in Theology and is no doubt socially conservative. But pushing a religion-based agenda so far has not been his campaign priority. He seems to appreciate that no one’s personal values are safe if the government continues to grow and to control every aspect of our lives.
Will Brat continue to avoid the errors made by so many social conservatives? That has yet to be seen, but he does seem to have a winning paradigm.
In light of Cantor’s defeat, Establishment Republicans must understand that they are part of the problem, at best slowing the nation’s decline with their support of the current corrupt regime. They should remember that George W. Bush contributed to this regime with expansions of the welfare and regulatory state. They should remember the defeats of their standard-bearers McCain and Romney. And thus they should seek out and support principled candidates like Dave Brat
Yes, passing—and repealing!—laws takes political skill. Compromises and deals will need to be made. But only if establishment Republicans abandon the establishment and if social conservatives give priority to limiting government, only if all GOP factions dedicate themselves to the principles of liberty can the party triumph and the country be saved.
Hudgins is director of advocacy and a senior scholar at The Atlas Society.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.