The American electorate is irate with Washington. Tuesday it vented its frustration at the only target available: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
His historic defeat was the manifestation of Washington becoming increasingly self-absorbed and failing to address a growing list of needs back home. They see fight after fight on issues such as taxes and spending, foreign policy and immigration with little-to-nothing to show for it, and compounding scandals within the vast federal bureaucracy.
The IRS targeting advocacy organizations, veterans dying as a result of incompetence and mismanagement at the VA, a lack of accountability on the murders at the Benghazi mission and releasing top-level terrorists in exchange for a possible military deserter are infuriating Americans.
They had few other options than to send home the second-most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives and dismiss the House Majority Leader for the first time in the history of the position. They alternatively elected the unknown and underfunded economics professor David Brat to replace him.
For me, it’s past as prologue with a similar storyline to the events that led to my first election to Congress 22 years ago.
Back then, Guy Vander Jagt had represented Michigan’s Second Congressional District for 26 years. His constituency respected and admired him for his work on their behalf in the early years, which included establishing a national park on Lake Michigan, serving on the chief tax-writing committee in the House and providing congressional oversight of the U.S. space program and moon landing.
They were proud to send the veteran statesman back to Washington every two years, but somewhere along the way they perceived him as prioritizing the needs of the Capitol over their parochial grievances.
The change in perception likely began in 1975 when he became chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fourth-highest leadership post in the House.
They saw him gain more prominence on the national stage – including delivering the keynote address at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit – and spend less time at home.
By 1992, Washington had become roiled in dysfunction and ethics transgressions such as the banking scandal, money laundering through the congressional post office and tax-free junkets, one of which showed Vander Jagt on a beach in Barbados.
By August voters were ready to vote out just about every incumbent, and Vander Jagt happened to be one of the most high-profile among them.
I was among those who had become dissatisfied with Washington and wanted change, so I mounted a long-shot campaign to defeat Vander Jagt, fully aware of my slim chances of winning. Similar to Brat’s virtual anonymity and lack of serious resources, I leveraged five weeks’ vacation from my employer and a few thousand dollars of my own savings.
I spent the next five weeks hitting the streets of the district on my feet and my old bike, meeting with countless constituents and learning about their priorities for Washington.
Voters defeated Vander Jagt and elected me in August of 1992 in a referendum on Washington and his performance, just like the referendum in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District on Tuesday. I went on to serve in Congress, just as Brat will likely do after the November general election.
The boiling point among constituents that led to Brat’s victory cannot be considered in a vacuum.
The 1992 election – in which the electorate dismissed one the highest-ranking members of Congress and a sitting president – foreshadowed the 1994 revolution in which Republicans gained control of the Senate and the House for the first time in 40 years.
Washington needs to embrace the mantel of reform like Republicans did with the Contract with America in 1994. We responded to voter angst by getting things done such as reforming welfare, cutting taxes, balancing the budget and growing the economy. President Clinton and House Republicans benefited politically by becoming results-oriented.
Republicans and Democrats should heed the message from my experience and Cantor’s defeat on Tuesday or ignore it at their own peril. Candidates like Brat and me are outliers. Voters don’t embrace novel dark horse challengers so much as they grow increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of their incumbents.
Whichever party embraces and responds to the frustrations that surfaced on Tuesday – and which I experienced in 1992 – will win in November and in 2016.