The stunning primary defeat Tuesday of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has left establishment Republicans scratching their heads and wondering what to do next. Cantor, a seven-term congressman who reportedly spent more than $167,000 on campaign events at steakhouses, lost to David Brat, an economics professor aligned with local tea party groups who spent just $122,000 on his entire campaign.
Among House Republicans, Cantor was a prime mover on immigration reform, which Brat criticized as “amnesty.” He was also viewed as a pro-business, generally conservative legislator – not necessarily a moderate or “Republican in Name Only.”
Does a tea party victory bode well or ill for Republican prospects in November? Is Cantor’s defeat significant beyond his own district? Could other Republican incumbents share Cantor’s fate? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the Red-Blue America columnists, weigh in.
It’s always nice to see a well-ensconced incumbent receive a nice thrashing, even if that incumbent happens to share one’s political outlook. Eric Cantor, it seems, got what he deserved. “Representative” Cantor forgot whom he was representing.
The second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives is a bit like the well-travelled husband who took his wife for granted, then is stunned to arrive home one day to find that she’s packed up and moved in with her boyfriend.
Cantor took his district for granted. He was, by all accounts, rarely if ever there. Virginia’s legislature drew a safe Republican district for Cantor after the last Census, which he carried in the last election by a more than two-to-one margin. But his constituents – the people who actually cast the ballots, as opposed to the lobbyists who wrote his campaign checks – say they neither knew him nor trusted him.
So if you remember the old saw that “all politics is local,” then it’s really no wonder why Cantor lost.
Now, does Cantor’s primary defeat necessarily mean a tea party pick-up in November? David Brat, the surprise victor, is untested and (for the moment, anyway) underfunded. Political reporters and Democratic operatives – but I repeat myself – are poring over Brat’s writings, looking for evidence beyond his tea party sympathies that he is a lunatic, an extremist.
Also, it’s worth noting that Virginia has an open primary, which allows for Democrats to vote for Republicans, and vice versa. No doubt David Brat benefited greatly from Democratic voter mischief. He won’t be able to count on those votes in the general election.
The truth is, Cantor was a creature of Washington, at a time when voters are losing patience with Beltway shenanigans. Cantor’s support for some kind of compromise on comprehensive immigration reform didn’t help him, but it wasn’t what did him in, either. It was the casual contempt for his constituents – the ones that really matter – that brought him to ruin.
See? Sometimes democracy really does work.
Three quick lessons to take away from Eric Cantor’s defeat:
That’s astonishing; more so when you realize Cantor might’ve won re-election easily had he simply survived the primary.
Primaries attract the most committed partisans. The choices they make often look little like the choices we’d otherwise make for ourselves; but we’re stuck with their choices. It’s not healthy for our politics, our governance, or our collective bile levels. And it can hardly be described as “democracy at work.”
Again, 6 percent of a Virginia district’s electorate has made this decision for the rest of us.
Time and again in recent years, President Obama and Speaker John Boehner have come to agreements that would’ve pushed the nation in a rightward direction – entitlement reform, anyone? – only to be scuttled by Cantor and the tea party caucus as insufficiently conservative.
Those agreements never came to fruition. Republicans who wouldn’t settle for half a loaf didn’t end up with the whole thing. Nobody was happy with the budget deals that Obama and Congress did manage to put together. Cantor’s gone? Good riddance. But good riddance to the process that swept him out.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.