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Boiling Over

How an orchestrated, years-long ground game pulled off one of the biggest upsets in American political history.

By Jim McConnell

The national tea party movement came on like a summer storm. Full of sound and fury, its 2009 rallies united conservatives in large numbers and provided an outlet for their simmering disgust at President Barack Obama’s “big government” agenda.

Fueled by frustration over bank bailouts, economic stimulus and health care reform, tea partiers flashed some early electoral clout. Republican Scott Brown pulled off a stunning upset in the bluest of the blue states, winning the Massachusetts Senate seat that had been vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy. Tea party support also helped the GOP win 60 seats in the House.

Nearly as quickly as it had arrived, however, the grassroots movement appeared to blow itself out. Only four of 16 tea party-backed Senate candidates won their 2012 midterm elections. By October 2013, in the aftermath of a partial government shutdown, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 49 percent of Americans viewed the tea party unfavorably. A story posted on the National Journal website in March of this year announced that “The Tea Party’s Over.”

But as the Republican establishment worked to further marginalize the tea party as a factor in national politics, one of its leaders on Capitol Hill seemed blissfully unaware of another storm that had been quietly gathering strength right in his own backyard.

In 2011, long before most people living in Virginia’s 7th Congressional district could have picked Dave Brat out of a police lineup, a conservative group called the Chester Patriots began to make inroads within Chesterfield County’s halls of power.

The local tea party-affiliated organization, which had grown to include some 300 members since its founding two years earlier, was the first to speak out against the county’s proposed comprehensive plan. The target of the Patriots’ ire was a section of the plan that created a new zoning category, known as “countryside,” and prohibited new residential development in rural areas on parcels smaller than 5 acres.

Ralph Carter was one of many Patriots who saw the proposed plan as a blatant attempt by the county government to strip property owners of their rights. Carter and others also questioned the motives of the Florida-based company that had been hired by the county to draft the comprehensive plan. They claimed that Renaissance Planning Group was covertly affiliated with Agenda 21, a United Nations-backed effort to encourage “sustainable development” in urban centers and limit development in rural areas.

“Some people have a different endgame in mind than what they show in public,” says Carter, president of Carter’s Power Equipment in Chester.

More than 178 nations – including the United States, then represented by President George H.W. Bush – adopted Agenda 21 as official policy during a signing ceremony at the U.N.’s 1992 Earth Summit. Tea party groups view it as part of an international plot to promote social justice and wealth redistribution at the expense of property owners and have vowed to fight it wherever it surfaces.

To many outsiders, the conspiracy theory was dismissed as a flash in the pan by a few vagabond citizens. But the outcry was intense enough to force county government officials and the Board of Supervisors into action. Despite denials by Chesterfield’s planning director, Kirk Turner, who insisted that any connection between the proposed comprehensive plan and Agenda 21 was “coincidental,” the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors was troubled enough by complaints about the plan to scrap it at a cost of nearly $900,000.

That decision – and a new draft of the comp plan more protective of property rights – was regarded as a significant victory for local conservatives. While the tea party was being dismissed as a fringe sect of the GOP nationally, its message was gaining momentum locally. But there was no gloating; the victors were just getting warmed up.

In May 2013, Carter and other opponents of a proposed 2 percent tax on restaurant meals in Chesterfield demonstrated outside a Board of Supervisors meeting and passed out fliers containing information about the plan. Freddy Boisseau, a member of the Chester Patriots, called the meals tax “a back door to another revenue stream.” Another citizen attended the demonstration armed with a pitchfork.

“Who keeps giving money to someone who doesn’t know how to spend it correctly?” asks Brenda Stewart, a Chesterfield resident who has hammered the local school division on numerous occasions for what she claims is wasteful spending.

“I say we give this county no more money until two things happen: They start documenting why and how they’re spending our money, and they start holding people accountable when they screw up.”

Dave Brat speaks to members of the Henrico County Republican Party during a breakfast meeting in Glen Allen in late April. At the time, few gave him a shot at defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the June 10 primary.
While their neighbors in Henrico County approved a 4 percent meals tax last November, Chesterfield voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar measure in a countywide referendum. Only five of 74 precincts approved the tax – including Harbour Pointe and Evergreen, where it carried by 10 and 14 votes, respectively.

Local conservatives also convinced the Board of Supervisors to abandon a planned increase in the county’s property tax rate. The supervisors had voted earlier this year to advertise a 3-cent increase, but after getting an earful from unhappy constituents during a public hearing on the budget, they approved only a 1-cent increase that was partially offset by spending cuts.

“We don’t just stand up there and complain – we provide alternative solutions,” Carter says. “The board only gets its information from a few places, mainly county staff. We try to share with them information they don’t get from other sources.”

Disseminating information to the masses is Bob Shannon’s specialty. Prior to the 2008 presidential election, Shannon made his political preference clear by putting up a large sign on his property near Route 360 in King William County. The sign asked passersby whether they’d rather have a former war hero or a “Karl Marx wannabe” as their next commander-in-chief.

Since then, the 59-year-old unapologetic conservative has become well-known for the 220 bright yellow “Gadsden signs” that have been erected near major thoroughfares in Hanover, Henrico and King William counties.

Modeled after the tea party’s Gadsden flag, the signs are effective because people can’t help but read them, supporters say. They’re placed strategically near heavily traveled roads (such as Routes 1 and 301) and local tea party members rotate the signs regularly to avoid the messages growing stale.

True to Shannon’s nature, the signs are about as subtle as a jackhammer. One of his favorites notes that the national debt was $3 trillion when Eric Cantor was elected to the House for the first time in 2000. “It’s now $17 trillion. Any questions?” it reads.

“The only way conservatives in this country are going to get a handle on this thing again is brute force,” says Shannon, who founded tea party groups in both Mechanicsville and King William. “We’re guerrilla fighters in the trenches. We have to make legislators fear us. Trying to ingratiate yourself with them is a total waste of time.”

Shannon found himself in hot water with Mechanicsville Tea Party members earlier this year, when he put up a Gadsden sign on Ashcake Road accusing Delegate Chris Peace (R-97th District) of supporting Medicaid expansion in Virginia. Peace vehemently denied that claim and insisted that Shannon had misrepresented his position on the controversial issue.

“Unfortunately, some people believe that there is a political advantage to misleading the public, resorting to anonymous attacks and false statements. Honor should mean something. This current trend in our community is wrong and it violates the public trust,” Peace told the Mechanicsville Local newspaper.

Shannon stands by the sign, arguing that Peace voted for a state budget last year that didn’t include specific language prohibiting Medicaid expansion. Instead, lawmakers left that decision up to the new Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission – a loophole that many conservatives feared would make it possible for supporters of Medicaid expansion to make an end-run around the will of Virginia’s voters.

According to Shannon, Peace demanded that the Mechanicsville Tea Party’s leaders take down the sign. They did just that, prompting a well-known local conservative blogger to call on the Mechanicsville group to “put on their big boy pants and join the cause … or close down shop and get the hell out of the way.”

A college economics professor with a special interest in religious freedom, Dave Brat struck a chord with members of Heaven’s Saints motorcycle ministry in April.
“Why in the world would you allow the target of a sign to even ask that it be taken down, let alone do it? When they squeal, you know you are doing it right. Don’t stop! You know you are over the target when you start taking fire,” wrote Tom White, a Hanover County resident and editor of the Virginia Right blog. “Stop backing down when the going gets tough. That is when you have to work even harder. You must stop giving ground.”

Shannon, a retired Marine, wasn’t about to run from a fight. He reclaimed the sign from the Mechanicsville Tea Party and, much to Peace’s chagrin, put it back up.

“In America, we put our elected officials on a pedestal and treat them like they’re rock stars,” he says. “It’s absolutely silly. They’re supposed to work for us.”

While it didn’t gain any national attention – or that much local media coverage beyond the local weeklies and the blogosphere – the growing tenacity of the tea party’s anti-government message was resonating with more and more people.

Not so long ago, voters in the 7th District afforded Eric Cantor “favored son” status. The Richmond native, who earned degrees from George Washington University and Columbia University and graduated from law school at the College of William and Mary, inherited the 7th District’s Congressional seat from the retiring Tom Bliley in 2001. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Republican leadership in Washington, assuming the House minority whip post in 2009 before being named majority leader two years later.

A gifted fundraiser, Cantor’s role as the second-ranking Republican in the House required him to travel the country regularly and shake loose major donations from party benefactors. He was extremely effective in that regard. Eventually, Cantor became known more for the company he kept – including controversial Las Vegas casino mogul (and GOP mega donor) Sheldon Adelson – than any legislative accomplishments.

Cantor’s critics contended that he was rarely seen around his district and was generally unresponsive to his constituents. They may as well have been whistling in the wind, as he was re-elected by comfortable margins six times and established himself as the heavy favorite to eventually succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House.

Cantor dogged Obama throughout his first term in the White House, clashing frequently with the president on any number of issues. Democrats labeled him a conservative idealogue more interested in preventing the president from pursuing his agenda than helping the country recover from the crippling effects of the housing collapse and recession. Who could have known that just six years later, voters in Cantor’s district would say he wasn’t conservative enough?

Well, a guy named Mudcat, for one.

Campaigning in April, Dave Brat attends a rally at the Golden Corral in Henrico, where he prayed with members of the Heaven’s Saints motorcycle ministry.
Veteran Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders ran Wayne Powell’s effective, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign against Cantor in 2012. After Cantor won with 58 percent of the vote – easily the smallest margin of victory in his six re-election bids – Saunders suggested that Cantor was vulnerable to a political attack from his right flank.

Gerry Baugh shared that belief. The owner of a successful auto body shop in Richmond, Baugh observed during his two-year term as leader of the Mechanicsville Tea Party that local conservatives had grown restless with Cantor over his inability to de-fund Obamacare, his unwillingness to put the brakes on government spending and his support for a Republican version of the DREAM Act. Baugh believed Cantor could be beaten and thought a little-known economics professor from Randolph-Macon College was just the man to do it.

Baugh brought in Dave Brat to speak with members of the Mechanicsville Tea Party for the first time in 2010. Baugh also continued to lobby Brat to challenge Cantor, but Brat was on the fence and didn’t decide to run for the 7th District seat until four years later.

“I said, ‘If we don’t do this with Dave Brat, we may as well king Eric Cantor. We’re never going to have a better candidate, and we’re never going to have a better chance to win,’” Shannon recalls.

White, the blogger, thinks that Brat’s call for a return to the tenets of the Republican creed – fiscal restraint, strong national defense, etc. – was key because it resonated with dissatisfied GOP voters in the 7th District.

“We elected Eric Cantor to represent our beliefs and he lost sight of that,” White adds, “but until Dave came along, we had never had a candidate who could unite a broad enough spectrum of conservatives.”

While national tea party groups wouldn’t even return Brat’s phone calls, local conservatives turned out in large numbers to back his primary challenge. They knocked on doors and spoke to potential voters over the phone by the thousands. They also showed up en masse to the 7th District Republican Convention, where delegates booed Cantor mercilessly when he got up to speak and defeated his choice for convention chair. While it may not have been card-carrying tea party members who ousted Cantor, they were priming the conservative electorate for a shocking takedown.

Even Cantor’s decision to run a series of television ads in which he labeled Brat “a liberal college professor” backfired, serving only to further galvanize conservatives’ determination to run him out of office.

“Cantor had the money, but Brat had a better ground game in Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield,” says Mark Hile, a leader of the Henrico tea party. “That was evident by the voting.”

Despite raising $5.5 million to Brat’s $200,000, Cantor suffered what many commentators have called the biggest upset in the history of American politics – a 12-point thumping that neither he nor his pollsters saw coming. He was the first sitting House majority leader to lose in a primary since the 1800s. Adding insult to injury, Cantor even lost Henrico County, his home base and an electorate that had been faithful to him for two decades.

Larry Nordvig, former executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, told the New York Times in June that national groups had no idea “how much activity was going on underneath the surface down here and how large the ABC – Anybody But Cantor – mentality was.”

“This wasn’t an exhibition fight,” Shannon adds. “We laced up our gloves and went after this guy in a very hard, brutal manner.”

As Brat moves on to face fellow professor Jack Trammell in November and Cantor surveys the wreckage of his political career, what can Richmond-area conservatives do for an encore?

Brat is a prohibitive favorite to win the House race. Reports last month surfaced that he had already raised $400,000 since beating Cantor, doubling the contributions he received heading into the primary. He has people on the ground and a reliably Republican district. Barring a major mistake, it should be smooth sailing ahead.

So while the national media persist in labeling Brat a “tea party candidate,” White understands why his campaign has subtly distanced itself from any affiliation with the movement.

“When the media associates someone with the tea party, they want people to think about racists, hatemongers and extremists,” he says.

Hile insists that Henrico tea party members already have moved on and begun refocusing on important local issues. That’s one of the objectives of the Center for Self-Governance, a Tennessee-based organization that teaches people how to effectively influence their local elected officials. The center has sent instructors to the Richmond area on multiple occasions for presentations to various tea party groups.

One Henrico couple takes seriously their responsibility as citizen activists. Brent and Jonna Manny have attended each of the county’s Board of Supervisors meetings over the past two years. They’ve educated themselves on key local issues and engaged the board about various spending decisions. They also were the only civilians who attended the county’s public budget hearing earlier this year.

“We’re evolving,” Hile says. “We’ve matured and grown beyond all the rallies and in-your-face stuff.”

Carter acknowledges that taking on a more active role in governing is a dramatic philosophical departure from the tea party’s earliest days. “The only way you can steer the boat is to be on it,” he says. “You can’t do it by standing on the beach yelling.”

Regardless of their methods, Shannon wants local tea party groups to build on Brat’s victory and achieve some “tangible progress” in reducing the size of government. He believes that conservatives have the passion and “the muscle to achieve certain things,” but need to do a better job getting autonomous groups to sing from the same sheet of music.

“It takes tremendous patience and perseverance,” Shannon adds. “It took 50 or 60 years for things to get so fouled up. We’re not going to fix it in one or two election cycles.”

Whether recent history is a precursor of things to come – or the conservative message falls on deaf ears in coming elections – is anyone’s guess. But one thing’s for certain after Cantor’s defeat: Ignore the tea party movement at your own peril.

© 2017 Chesterfield Observer