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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cantor Mislabels Opponent, The Sequel

A new ad from House Republican Leader Eric Cantor again misrepresents his primary opponent’s role on a state economic forecasting board, and this time the ad misappropriates our credibility by citing a story in which we dinged Cantor for twisting the facts.

The ad again paints David Brat as a “liberal college professor” based on the claim that he did not “fight back” against a tax increase proposed by former Gov. Tim Kaine when Brat served as an “appointed economic adviser to Tim Kaine.”

Brat, a lifelong Republican who chairs the department of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College, is backed by the tea party and is running to the right of Cantor.

But just like Cantor’s first ad on this issue, the sequel leaves the misleading impression that Brat provided sweeping economic advice to the governor. In fact, Brat served on the Joint Advisory Board of Economists (JABE), a large board of unpaid technical experts that was narrowly tasked with providing professional economic forecasts. Advice on tax policy was not part of the job description.

Roy Webb and another conservative board member with whom we spoke said Brat’s work on the board was nonpartisan — as prescribed by the position — but they said discussions outside the board meetings revealed Brat as politically conservative. That conservative position was also confirmed to us by three of Brat’s colleagues in the department of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College who scoffed at the characterization of Brat as a “liberal college professor.”

The latest ad argues that when Kaine proposed a tax increase, Brat “could have fought back. He could have done something.”

What should Brat have done? Ray Allen, a spokesman for the Cantor campaign, told us: “There are many things David Brat could have done. … He could have: resigned; or he could have issued a press statement that his numbers didn’t justify a tax increase. He could have written a letter to the editor saying that as an economist, he understands that raising taxes hurts the economy. But he didn’t do any of those things, his prestigious appoint[ment] was more important to him. He had a chance to stand up and didn’t. Why would we believe he will stand up to Barack Obama?”

The ad then cites our article to paraphrase Brat as saying the board was “no place for those kinds of political opinions.” Brat’s comment was in response to a Cantor spokesman chastising Brat for not resigning or making a public statement opposing Kaine’s tax increase at the time. Here’s what we wrote:

FactCheck.org, May 5: Brat told us he would have been against tax increases — “I’m on the Republican side of the agenda” — but those kinds of political opinions have no place in his role on JABE.

And Brat is right about that. According to Virginia Code, JABE is charged with providing economic forecasts based on “economic assumptions and technical econometric methodology.” It has no role whatsoever in recommending tax policy.

Brat stood by that statement to us, adding, “They’re acting like it was a committee discussing tax policy and that’s false. We didn’t talk about tax policy. We talked about the economy and whether the forecast should be optimistic, pessimistic or neutral. As an economist, I’m supposed to do science. We were not supposed to weigh in on taxes.”

Webb, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond who has served on JABE for five Virginia governors (including Republicans and Democrats), told us it is a “nonpartisan group that has a narrow interest on a very technical subject: to forecast the economic activity so that it can be used for the state’s budget. In that sense, it is very straightforward. Is the economy going to be weak or is it going to be strong? It could be seen as a basic feature of good government. It makes it harder for any administration to come up with a budget based on some crazy forecast.”

Those projections are then reviewed by the Advisory Council on Revenue Estimates, which is chaired by the governor and populated by other legislators and private sector employees appointed by the governor. That board settles on a revenue projection, and the governor subsequently proposes a budget based on that projection.

Webb’s contention that JABE is a nonpartisan group is supported by the fact that many of its members have served under multiple governors, both Republicans and Democrats. In fact, although Brat was originally appointed to the board by Kaine in 2006, he was reappointed to serve on the board under Kaine’s Republican successor, Gov. Bob McDonnell. In 2013, McDonnell also appointed Brat to the Virginia Board of Accountancy.

While Brat remains a long-shot candidate to unseat Cantor — at least based on fundraising to date —  the Washington Post recently reported that Brat “may be picking up momentum.” Brat, the article states, “is gaining national attention as a potential threat to Cantor’s hold on his solidly Republican, suburban Richmond district. Brat has won support from some big-name conservatives and has tapped into discontent across Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.” The Republican primary is on June 10.

— Robert Farley