The recent primary loss of Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader and one step below John Boehner, has sent some unnecessary shock waves through political circles. I use the word “unnecessary” because one has to look at this loss in perspective. More importantly, one needs to look at the reasons proffered for the loss and the only thing “shocking” about Dave Brat’s victory is that it represents the first time a member of the congressional leadership team in either house lost a primary race. But, let’s look at the alleged reasons for the loss.
1. Anti-Semitism. This is perhaps the most ridiculous reason suggested and stems from an article in a liberal rag called The Atlantic. While correctly pointing out that every Republican in Congress will now be Christian come 2015 (no Jews, no Muslims, no Wiccans), to suggest anti-Semitism suddenly played a role in Cantor’s loss is ludicrous. Eric Cantor, a Jew, has handily won the 7th District since 2001. Are liberals now asserting that the district suddenly became ant-Semitic over night? Suggestions like these only fan the flames of intolerance upon which the Left breeds. A comment like that is more worthy of some bearded goof at DailyKos than an alleged political analyst at The Atlantic.
2. Democratic cross-over. Virginia uses an open primary system. There are reports that the campaign of Brat allegedly engaged in robo-calls to registered Democrats in the district urging them to cross over and vote against Cantor. If so, then this is political genius, not dirty tricks. In effect, if true, Brat used the Democrats to win a primary and advance to the general election in a district that is reliably Republican. However, the assertion that Democrats undertook this option themselves is also ridiculous since their choice- chosen through the convention process- is also a lesser known college professor who writes vampire novels and children’s books. This tactic may have played some role in taking down Cantor, but cannot explain the whole story. Incidentally, this is the reason offered by the losing side here.
3. Help from the right wing media. There is perhaps some merit to this argument, but it begs the bigger question. Assuming there was no one to the right of Eric Cantor, would the right wing media had intervened? This is like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. Further, it is quite doubtful that Laura Ingraham could sway an electorate to any great degree. It is not as if voters in Virginia’s 7th district were sitting around saying, “Gee…I wonder who Laura Ingraham would vote for?”
4. The role of spending. By all accounts, Cantor outspent Brat $5 million to $120,000. That is a 40:1 ratio. It is also a walking advertisement against campaign finance reform and proves that people- not dollar bills- pull the levers on election days. Furthermore, there was nary a scent of outside spending on the part of Brat in this race. But, the spending figures (as reported by Opensecrets.org) does show signs of cracks in Cantor’s wall. Regarding Cantor, 98% of the money he raised came from large donors or PACs while only 67% of Brat’s funds came from such sources. And although the dollar amount contributed by small donors was greater for Cantor, the proportion of small donor contributions was greater for Brat. The small donors tend to be actual constituents of the district. Yes, Cantor raised $95,000 this way, but Brat raised a respectable $67,000 in this manner and that should have set off warning bells at the Cantor campaign headquarters.
Additionally, Cantor’s internal polls showed him with a ridiculously high 70% of the vote three weeks out. That is either really bad polling, ignorance, or both. A simple look at the source of campaign contributions should have raised some eyebrows and made the Cantor team think that perhaps there was some grumbling afoot in the Seventh District. Most importantly, Cantor’s ads were of a negative nature and bordering on the absurd. Perhaps some panic was belatedly setting in, but it was too much too late. The over-the-top attack ads likely turned the fence sitters against Cantor. This again proves that actual voters have the ability to tune out the negativity in campaigns.
5. Resurgence of the Tea Party. As a recent representative of the Tea Party Patriots explained on Fox News, the national Tea Party organizations sat out this race because they were concentrating on the Senate race in Mississippi. To use Dave Brat’s victory as evidence of a resurgence is silly considering that the Tea Party sat out this primary race. Furthermore, until this point, only one Tea Party candidate had “won” a congressional district race and he was unopposed. Although Brat may have sought out the support and endorsement of the Tea Party, it never came except in behind-the-scenes efforts. He may now get that endorsement, financial help and support, but in reality Dave Brat was NOT a “Tea Party candidate.”
Regardless, someone to the perceived as to right of Eric Cantor does not automatically make one “Tea Party.” And thus far after all the primaries, when Tea Party candidates are not dropping out of races, their electoral performance is below 2010 and 2012 levels. For example, in 2010 primaries Tea Party affiliated or endorsed candidates received about 30% of all GOP votes cast. In 2012, that vote percentage dropped to 24%. This year thus far it stands at just under 19%. If there were a real resurgence in Tea Party strength, then people like Matt Bevin would be running in Kentucky. The fact is that even in a good year for the Tea Party, for every Rand Paul, Marco Rubio or Mike Lee, there were also Christine O’Donnells, Joe Millers, and Sharon Angles. We are likely to hear these same talking heads claiming the same “Tea Party resurgence” should Chris McDaniel win the runoff in Mississippi. If he wins- and I hope he does- a single senatorial Tea Party victory does not equal a resurgence.
6. Immigration. In a previous article when I “endorsed” Brat over Cantor, I noted that immigration was one issue where they diverged. In reality, there were others. I do not know the inclinations of Republicans in Virginia’s 7th regarding immigration reform in general, but my guess is that it is not at the top of the priority list. The media is portraying this as the #1 issue and comparing this to the Lindsey Graham victory in South Carolina.
But that akin to comparing apples to oranges. Graham is certainly more of a moderate than Cantor on immigration and he likely picked up, on a statewide basis, more moderate Republican votes along the way. In more localized races where the electorate is conservative, a single issue can set in motion a defeat. More importantly, Cantor and immigration is indicative of the more likely reason Cantor lost.
7. A “status quo” rebellion. This may make some sense in this particular race. However, in the overall sense this primary season, incumbents seeking reelection are doing quite well at all levels. Sure, there was the runoff defeat of an incumbent in Texas, but that incumbent was 91 years old. But, Dave Brat certainly tapped into some of this rebellion and it was excellent politics. Because…
8. Cantor lost touch with his constituents. Some news outlets interviewed people in the 7th District after the primary. Their comments were about 55-45 against Cantor- the same margin by which he lost. Their reasoning was that they felt Cantor did not care as much about his constituents as he did about being Majority Leader. That position requires the occupant to reach out beyond their district and do fundraising and appearances for other candidates. Cantor noted that he was in his district weekly. Considering it isn’t that far from DC, he should be. But what he does with his time in the district is more important than his mere physical presence there.
Additionally, Cantor is perceived as smarmy by liberals (and by me) and treacherous by conservatives. For example, his stance on certain small scale immigration reform measures are viewed as politically calculating. In the end, Eric Cantor is less a representative and more a politician and his hubris caught up with him. And quite frankly, taking a primary victory for granted and simply assuming one would win is indicative of taking your constituents for granted. Which led to…
9. Turnout and enthusiasm. Admittedly, turnout was low which is kind of strange if we adhere to the Democrat cross-over theory. But by all accounts, it was low and low turnout often favors the challenger, especially in a runoff election. However, this is a situation which Cantor brought upon himself. In the 2013 Republican gubernatorial race, Cantor was quite vocal against the convention system that vaulted Ken Cuccinelli into the nomination. He believed that a primary system was better because the conservative activists would have less of a voice. Generally speaking, that is true and is a reason Lindsey Graham won in South Carolina. In a primary, more moderate voters simply drown out the voices and votes of the more conservative activists.
But Cantor failed to gauge the enthusiasm for Dave Brat, as did many political pundits. That is one thing money cannot buy and something that those on the Left and their penchant for campaign finance reform do not seem to understand. There is no evil Koch brother behind Brat’s victory, no Freedom Works, no Tea Party Patriots, etc. He ran on a consistent, principled message and platform that had a lot in common with Cantor’s, but enough of a difference to make a difference in the end. This grassroots enthusiasm is often evident in the proportion of small donors to big donors/PACs. Again, Brat won that category. As for the message…
10. Cantor was “big government.” The biggest difference between a conservative and a Leftist is their view of the role of government. To the conservative, it is laying the groundwork so that ALL may advance, then getting out of the way. This often translates into a smaller government. To the Leftist, the government is a de facto parent taking care of everyone from cradle to death. The Leftist gives out the fish; the conservative teaches one to fish. Everything that Brat has written as a professor indicates that he is a very strong adherent to the true conservative view.
Look at Cantor’s record since 2001. He voted for Medicare Part D, he voted for No Child Left Behind, he voted for the bloated Department of Homeland Security and the TSA- two entities that have not made the US safer. Most egregiously, he voted for TARP and then he voted for the auto bailout. Everything indicates and Brat’s post-victory comments also indicate that he would never vote for these very things. If one remembers correctly, it was TARP that gave birth to the Tea Party movement.
In the end, Brat’s victory must be kept in perspective. All these prognostications that “immigration reform is dead,” “the Right Wing has seized the party,” etc. are overblown. Outside the DC beltway, this is just another loss- significant- but an incumbent loss nevertheless. It is the political pundit class who is reading way too much into a race whose outcome is unique to Virginia politics and the personalities, perceptions, and politics of the Seventh District. This writer believes Dave Brat will go on and win the general election in November and that he will be a principled, consistent conservative voice in the House. To me, the bigger political shock wave would be losing this seat to a Democrat.