Big names in conservative media gave boost to Cantor foe
Few people did more than radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham to propel economics professor David Brat from obscurity to national conservative hero.
The New York Times
If Eric Cantor needed evidence that his political career was in trouble, all he had to do was look outside his living-room window one night last week.
At a stately country club half a mile from his home in the affluent Richmond, Va., suburb of Glen Allen, so many people had come to see radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham stump for Cantor’s opponent in the Republican primary, David Brat, that the overflow parking nearly reached his driveway.
Ingraham was so taken aback at the size of the crowd — inside the clubhouse, hundreds of people crammed onto staircase landings, leaned over railings and peered down at her from above — she wondered aloud what was really going on.
“We all looked at each other, saying: ‘He could totally win,’ ” Ingraham said in an interview.
“I’ve had two moments in American politics in the last 15 years where I knew there was a big change afoot. One was when I left the Iowa caucuses in 2008. I walked out of there and said to a friend, ‘Barack Obama is going to win.’ And the other was when I left that rally last Tuesday.”
Few people did more than Ingraham to propel Brat, 49, an economics professor and first-time candidate, from obscurity to national conservative hero.
And few stories better illustrate how his out-of-nowhere victory was due in large part to a unique and potent alignment of influential voices in conservative media.
Crucially, voices like Ingraham’s combined with shoe-leather, grass-roots campaign work by a highly organized local conservative movement to fill a void left by the absence of support from national tea-party organizations and boldface Republican Party names.
Brat may have been turned away when he asked for financial support from well-funded conservative groups, and he was largely ignored by the national and local media, which considered Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, a shoo-in.
But he was a known quantity to the loyal audiences of radio personalities like Ingraham and Mark Levin, a Reagan aide and a revered figure in the conservative movement, and Breitbart.com, the website founded by the provocateur Andrew Breitbart.
Together, Levin and Ingraham reach nearly 10 million people each week. The Breitbart sites log 60 million page views each month.
Those audiences are heavy with engaged, politically motivated voters who turn out in Republican primaries, the kind of voters who came out for Brat on Tuesday.
“Of the 70,000 voters yesterday in Virginia, I am sure 95 percent go to Drudge, Breitbart, Mark Levin or Laura Ingraham every day, multiple times a day,” said Stephen Bannon, who wears many hats as a radio host, a filmmaker and the executive chairman of Breitbart.
Breitbart flew a reporter to Glen Allen last week to cover the Ingraham-Brat rally, providing some of the scant media attention the event received. During the campaign, Breitbart writers churned out dozens of articles about Brat.
In a fortuitous coincidence for Brat, many of the most influential media players who helped tip the election in his favor have long-standing ties to Virginia and were steeped in knowledge of how the state’s political system works.
Bannon grew up in Richmond. An old childhood friend of his was helping to run the Brat campaign. Levin lives not too far away in Northern Virginia and has been active in races there before.
Ingraham went to law school at the University of Virginia, which she said stirred her interest in state politics.
Before becoming a famous personality — she has been a guest host for Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and has had a nationally syndicated radio show since 2001 — she cut her teeth as a clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas and as a speechwriter in the Reagan administration.
At the Glen Allen rally, Ingraham told the crowd that Obama could have gotten a better deal in his prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Why not trade the majority leader, she wondered mischievously.
“Instead of sending five Taliban MVPs over there, he could have just traded one Eric Cantor,” she said.
Like Brat, Ingraham does not fit neatly into a tea-party mold.
As her résumé suggests, she has worked comfortably in Washington’s Republican power circles.
She supports Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, who has been maligned by many tea-party activists.
She said what drew her to Brat was a shared sense that the party leadership needed a jolt. It helped, of course, that both felt they had little to lose.
When friends would tell her that Brat had no shot, she said her response was: “Who cares? If you can take out a high-profile Republican establishment figure such as Eric Cantor, that is better than getting involved in 25 other races.”
She put Brat through an audition process of sorts about six months ago, talking to him to make sure that he was a solid candidate before committing.
“I spent a lot of time talking to him, challenging the depth of his understanding on issues,” she said.
Then she had him on her show several times. The subject lately had turned to illegal immigration and, in particular, the influx of children along the border with Mexico.
“You can’t just put the blame on Democrats,” she said on her show last week as she was introducing Brat. “Eric Cantor has expressed his unending sympathy for people who’ve come here illegally.”
She said Wednesday in the interview that she believed the prominence of the childhood immigration story on conservative programs like hers had pushed Brat ahead in the final days.
“That focus in the commonwealth of Virginia was really smart,” she said. “First of all, that state is changing demographically very quickly. And Republican grass-roots voters understand that.”
The first time she met Brat in person was at the rally near Cantor’s home last week.
Brat’s supporters said that without the help of Ingraham and other conservative media stars, the passion Brat supporters had would never have been enough on its own.
“Don’t discount intensity, and when you marry intensity with this media opportunity that we didn’t have 10 years ago, it’s powerful,” said Patrick McSweeney, who worked on the Brat campaign before becoming the general counsel of the state Republican Party recently.
Ingraham was celebrating her son’s sixth birthday with some friends Tuesday night, not paying much attention to the election results when, she said, a friend called with the news.
She jumped in elation, prompting her friends to ask what had happened.
“They said: ‘What is going on? Did you just hit Mega Millions?’ ” she said. “I said no, but this might be better.”