Eric Cantor will step down as House majority leader at the end of July, following his spectacular defeat in Tuesday’s Virginia District 7 primary. Political analysts of all stripes are trying to make sense of Cantor’s shocking upset by a Tea Party nobody.
Because he favored immigration reform? Doubtful, though that’s the narrative Democrats have spun, hoping to capitalize on the downfall of the Number 2 man in the House. A recent poll in Cantor’s district found 70% of Republicans favoring the type of immigration reform being considered by the House.
More likely is that Eric Cantor was so busy on the national fund-raising circuit that he seemed to have forgotten that it was voters in the Seventh District of Virginia who gave him that opportunity.
Despite having raised a whopping $5.6 million campaign chest, Cantor was invisible during his primary battle, and his ground-game nonexistent. New Yorkers have seen a lot of Cantor recently; Virginians, not so much.
Rather than a referendum on immigration policy, the sound defeat (56-44) of the fellow expected to succeed John Boehner as Speaker of the House should remind politicians of all stripes not to take their voters for granted.
Not that there isn’t a bigger message.
The ground had shifted beneath Cantor; the recent redistricting of Virginia’s Seventh district changed his voter group – making it more rural and tending more conservative.
In other words, it had become the kind of district more likely to welcome a candidate like Dave Brat, a little-known economics professor who championed the “little guy.”
This is the most important upshot from Virginia: the GOP has to convince average Americans that it is not in the pocket of Big Business, and that its free-market, anti-Big Government policies are not code for helping out the tycoons on Wall Street. Republicans have work to do.
Certainly, other factors may have influenced the race. Some have hypothesized (trying to make sense of one of the greatest upsets in Congressional history) that there was a whiff of anti-Semitism in the Seventh District air. Given Cantor’s previous victories (he took 58% of the vote in 2012) that seems a stretch, though the only GOP Jewish Representative’s links to Wall Street could have raised that notion with voters. There have also been rumors of dirty tricks; there are reports that Democrats rousted voters to participate in the open primary, driving the numbers higher and undermining the results. That could help explain why even recently Cantor’s pollsters apparently indicated 20 to 30-point margins in his favor.
Internal state politics may also have come into play. By some accounts, Cantor had recently tried to take over Virginia’s Republican Party, and ended up alienating mainstream and Tea Party types in the state. Nobody likes a bully.
But, the best explanation of the startling win by the Randolph-Macon professor is that Brat spoke the language that voters in the rural Virginia wanted to hear. It isn’t simply that Cantor was not conservative enough; his right-wing credentials are impressive, including his 100% rating from the National Right-to-Life Committee and “A” score from the NRA. It is that he’s no longer grass-stained.
On his campaign website, Brat declares, “I have faith that the conservative grassroots will overcome the money that big business and Establishment Republicans will devote to distorting our true free market, conservative principles.”
Radio talk show hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin pushed Brat as an anti-immigration candidate, but voters may have been more impressed that proposals to reform our dysfunctional immigrant posture seemed to favor Big Business at the expense of middle class workers.
Campaigning in Virginia, Ingraham tapped into that vein, telling voters, "Eric Cantor is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with the help of big business, the Chamber of Commerce, and other huge interest groups that have a vested interested in opening up our borders."
Opposition to crony capitalism and concerns about our nation’s debts and deficits launched and inspired the Tea Party originally, in the midst of the bail-outs and stimulus. These concerns still bring people to the polls.
The left-leaning media is using the upset in Virginia to alarm Americans. Cantor’s downfall, they suggest, signals a resurgent Tea Party, hinting that Republicans will respond to this shocker by tilting so far right as to become unstable.
The recent failure of the Tea Party to knock out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky or to successfully challenge Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, as well as other recent defeats, suggests otherwise.
The upshot could well be, instead, more energized GOP incumbents – bad news for Democrats.