In light of Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in the Virginia primary, it’s tempting to say that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
For the last six years, Cantor has been the lynchpin in the House Republican coalition that has gridlocked Congress. He was the face of the opposition at White House summits on the economy and health care – prompting President Obama to remind him, presciently it turns out, that elections have consequences – and he has wielded his sword as majority leader so effectively over the last few years it was widely believed he was next in line for John Boehner’s job as Speaker of the House, whether Boehner wanted to give it up or not.
But Cantor didn’t lose his seat after 13 years because of his Republican beliefs. He lost it in a primary to a little known economics professor named David Brat, who is no more or less conservative than he is. And he lost it because nobody cares.
As Ezra Klein noted in Vox, Cantor could muster only 29,000 votes last Tuesday from the 750,000 constituents in his district. This was 191,000 fewer that he won in the 2012 general election, 8,400 votes less than he got in the primary that year, and, alas, 9,000 votes lower than the 36,000 his opponent accumulated this year on his way to victory.
But even his opponent’s winning total was still less than 5 percent of the eligible voters in the district, so if there is a lesson to take away from Brat’s victory, it is that voters are fatigued by the shenanigans of beltway politics, and especially fatigued by Cantor’s style of leadership.
Not About Immigration
When early returns indicated Cantor was losing Tuesday night, the networks called in their frontline pundits for commentary. Their top of mind analyses was that the vote was a rebuke for Cantor’s endorsement of a Republican version of The Dream Act, thus immigration reform was probably a dead issue in Congress this year. This put a lot of weight on a single congressional race and flew in the face of results from South Carolina where Sen. Lindsey Graham, tarred with the same Dream Act endorsement, beat back six Tea Party opponents. But Washington has a hard time looking beyond its own inner workings.
Yes, Brat filled local newspapers with blunderbuss ads hammering home his opposition to “amnesty” for illegal aliens, but Cantor was never far off the same track. His campaign mailers featured a news story that called him “the No. 1 guy standing between the American people and immigration reform.” And there is no way to tell how the immigration issue broke, or whether it even mattered. In the absence of exit polls, the only hard data we have comes from a same day robo-poll released by the activist Americans United for Change (skeptic alert: conducted by the left leaning Public Policy Polling) that showed that 72 percent of Virginia’s 7th district, including most Republicans, actually favor some form of comprehensive immigration reform.
Style and Personality
No, this was a race about style and personality, neither of which Cantor has in abundance. He is a sharp-elbowed player inside the beltway, known more for his mastery of parliamentary maneuvers than as a thought leader in Congress. He is also a pivotal go-between with the lobbyists and Wall Street financiers for Republicans, a connection Brat decried as “crony capitalism” over and over again on the campaign trail. It was a telling sign that on Election Day, Cantor wasn’t even in his district. He was, instead, at a Starbucks in Washington, holding a weekly meeting with lobbyists to raise money for other Republican candidates.
Brat is a kinder, gentler conservative, well-suited to a district that is predominantly white (75 percent), comfortably wealthy (medium income $64,751) and reliably Republican. (Mitt Romney carried it 57 – 42 over President Obama.) He is a conservative in the Friedrich Hayek mode with a Phd in Economics from American University in Washington, a Masters in Divinity from the Princeton, and as God fearing as they come. (He called his victory “a miracle from God.”) Ryan Lizza calls him “The Elizabeth Warren of the Right” in The New Yorker, “a ninety-nine-per-cent conservative who sees the real villain as corporate America and its addiction to government largesse.”
During the campaign, Brat’s over-arching message was that Cantor was out of touch with his home district, and too in touch with the businesses looking for corporate welfare from Washington. In his Stump speech, Lizza notes, Brat claimed that Cantor “is running on the Chamber of Commerce growth plan. The Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable. If you’re in big business, he’s good for you. But if you’re in any other group, it’s not good for you.” Brat opposes the farm bill because it has too many subsidies for big agribusiness conglomerates, federal flood insurance because “a lot of the money goes to gazillionaires on both coasts who have homes in nice real-estate locations,” and the Senate immigration bill on the grounds it just gives big business a lot of cheap labor at the expense of American workers. “I’m an economist. I’m pro-business. I’m pro-big business making profits,” Lizza quotes Brat. “But what I’m absolutely against is big business in bed with big government. And that’s the problem.”
Brat’s solution is term limits – 12 years for every Congressman – that, he says, will break up the comfy comradrie between Congress and K Street; and he ends every one of his stump speeches with the promise, “I’m going to make this Eric Cantor’s last term.”
The Tea Party Factor
Brat benefited from frequent media appearances with Tea Party favorites Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, but he wasn’t exactly a Tea Party darling, and he certainly wasn’t the beneficiary of their financial support. He ran his campaign from his kitchen table with two volunteers (initially) and a 23-year-old campaign manager, spending all of $123,000 on his effort.
Cantor, by contrast, raised and spent $5.5 million. He hired a host of Republican consultants, ran a bevy internal tracking polls, and stuffed money into all the crevices of a modern campaign. The line item from his disclosure report that will stick with Cantor for the rest of his life was $176,000 alone for steakhouse dinners.
The consensus after his defeat is that Cantor was the victim of what one Republican consultant called “political malpractice.” Leaving his own campaign to his consultants, he went around the country trying to build relationships with other Republican House candidates who, presumably, would then return the favor should he make a bid for the speakership. His consultants told him their internal polls had him up by 34 points over the little known Brat. When that number started to slip, they poured some $2 million into negative advertising that gave Brat more name recognition than he could ever have afforded.
“The negative ads calling me a liberal professor at first started off with kind of comic strips,” Brat told Politico. “Me and my boy watched them the first night and kind of died laughing. We thought they were funny.”
“I’m not a political expert on that, but I think they kind of saw what was happening and they made those a little darker, and they were black and green and looked like a Star Wars thing. By the time they got done with it – it made me look like a pretty serious guy.”
The complexion of Congress will not change after Tuesday’s primary. One conservative Republican has replaced another in Virginia’s 7th district, riding a tide of voter sentiment as thunderous as the ripple from a drop of water in a petrie dish. But it should be remembered that Eric Cantor wasn’t defeated by a wave of people who showed up to beat him. He was defeated by the thousands of people who didn’t show up to support him.
So this is a lesson in hubris. Even on the right side of the political spectrum, people are tired of the gamesmanship that passes for politics in Washington. And if Congress can’t give us a government that works, who cares? We’ll figure it out on our own. Just stay out of the way, as David Brat would put it.