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Seven Key Takeaways From Eric Cantor's Shocking Defeat

Thursday, 12 June 2014 09:04 By Joshua Holland, Moyers & Company | News Analysis
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2014 612 eric fwHouse Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) fields questions from reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Cantor said Wednesday he would resign as majority leader on July 31 following a stunning defeat in a primary election in which voters rejected him in favor of a more conservative Tea Party-backed candidate. June 11, 2014. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)

No incumbent majority leader had lost a seat in Congress since 1899, when the post was first created. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) broke that streak last night. He’s announced that he’ll step down from leadership within weeks.

Cantor’s stunning defeat at the hands of economist and college professor Dave Brat, a previously unknown candidate who reportedly was outspent by more than twenty-to-one, has sent political reporters scurrying for explanations. What does it mean for the GOP establishment? For the 2014 midterms? For immigration reform?

Below, we’ve rounded up some of the best analyses of Cantor’s unlikely loss. But an important caveat as you sort through the reporting: Be wary of sweeping conclusions based on a midterm primary. Only 65,000 people cast ballots last night — around 12 percent of registered voters in Virginia’s 7th District. So while the results may say a lot about the Republican Party’s activist base, Eric Cantor’s relationship with those voters and perhaps the mood among the most conservative constituents in Virginia’s 7th District, they probably offer little insight into nationwide trends heading into November’s midterms.

1. Cantor Stuck His Thumb In GOP Activists’ Eyes

At The Daily Beast, Ben Jacobs writes about how tensions between Cantor and GOP activists arose at last month’s state party meetings.

One Virginia Republican familiar with the race suggested that Cantor’s loss was due to “a perfect storm” brought about by the fact that Cantor seemed to be schooled in “the George Armstrong Custer school of tactics as opposed to Sung Tzu school.” The Republican suggested that while immigration was a factor, the bigger issues were internal party politics. As opposed to other Virginia Republicans in Congress, Cantor didn’t show the most basic respect to Tea Partiers in his district. It wasn’t about Cantor’s votes but rather that he didn’t even show up to explain himself and get yelled at…

Cantor also exacerbated things by failing at attempts to play internal politics within the Republican Party of Virginia. In May, his candidate to run the congressional convention in his district, Linwood Cobb, was defeated solely because he was supported by Cantor. Grassroots Republicans resented that the House majority leader was trying to “launch a boneheaded frontal assault” on the state party to take control of it. The result meant was that “run of the mill Paul Ryan Republicans” were just as furious with Cantor as Tea Partiers were. In a straw poll taken at that the convention, Brat was the favorite of attendees, but so was the establishment choice for the Senate nomination, Ed Gillespie.

Virginia’s tea party groups are among the best-funded and most organized in the nation, and they had a powerful ground game last night. Given the low turnout, these unforced errors with Virginia party activists played a major role in Cantor’s surprising defeat.

2. Was it Immigration?

Dave Brat ran a campaign focused heavily on his opposition to immigration reform, which Cantor has suggested the party needs to pass to remain viable in national elections.

Seung Min Kim reports for Politico that a new poll by Public Policy Polling found that registered Republicans in the 7th District favored comprehensive immigration reform by a 70-27 margin. The pollsters claim that immigration didn’t tilt the race toward Brat.

But the PPP poll explained the provisions of comprehensive reform before asking the question, and that always generates higher support than surveys which simply ask people’s views of “immigration reform.”

At The Daily Beast, Mike Tomasky writes that immigration was indeed a deciding factor — and that it spells doom for efforts to get a reform package through Congress anytime soon.

Obviously, first, it’s about immigration. That was David Brat’s (that’s the guy who won) whole campaign: Cantor was a liberal who supported a path to citizenship for the swarthy illegals. (He didn’t say that, of course, at least the swarthy part.) Immigration reform is D-E-A-D. There is no chance the House will touch it. That means it’s dead for this Congress, which means that next Congress, the Senate would have to take the lead in passing it again. (The Senate’s passage of the current bill expires when this Congress ends.) And the Senate isn’t going to touch it in the next Congress, even if the Democrats hold on to the majority. Those handful of Republicans who backed reform last year will be terrified to do so. And it’s difficult to say when immigration reform might have another shot.

But it’s worth noting that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has long been seen as a major target of the tea party movement, cruised to victory in his primary despite being one of a bipartisan group of senators to strike a deal for immigration reform last year. Granted, the anti-Graham vote was split among sixlargely unknown candidates.

David Marx writes at Politix that it wasn’t Cantor’s position on the issue as much as it was his messaging.

Cantor’s defeat offers another lesson — how not to run a negative campaign. In trying to stave off Brat’s challenge from the right, Cantor’s campaign threw out a bunch of ludicrous charges that only backfired.

Rare Editor Jeremy Lott – one of the few political analysts to detect the majority’s leader’s electoral troubles in advance — wrote before the votes were counted about desperate tactics by Cantor’s minions that were likely to backfire.

“Cantor and allies have run anti-Brat television ads, sent out fliers, blanketed the radio waves. The Cantorites have called the tea party-favored Brat a ‘liberal college professor’ and accused him, falsely, of backing amnesty for illegal immigrants. (Which, given Cantor’s slipperiness on the subject, takes chutzpah.)”

That broke a cardinal rule of negative campaigning — make your charges credible. One of Brat’s main issues was opposing the type of immigration reform sought by House Democrats.

3. Cantor’s Ambition Alienated Constituents

Jeff Schapiro reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch that there was “a perception within Republican circles that Cantor, in his determination to succeed John Boehner as speaker, seemed more interested in positioning for the next phase of the nonstop news cycle than embracing a distinct agenda.”

Cantor — a self-styled Young Gun, who along with Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, was a symbol of Yuppie Republicanism — became a distant figure to many of his Virginia constituents, seen only on Sunday talk shows and in the pages of national newspapers.

Cantor’s priority was traveling the country, raising money from corporate and financial leaders. The torrent of Cantor-generated cash would shore up a smaller but more influential constituency for the often-aloof lawyer: a handful of conservatives within the Republican caucus who would decide the speakership.

4. Brat Ran Against Corruption

At Republic ReportLee Fang writes, “The national media is buzzing about Brat’s victory, but for all of the wrong reasons.”

Brat told Internet radio host Flint Engelman that the “number one plank” in his campaign is “free markets.” Brat went on to explain, “Eric Cantor and the Republican leadership do not know what a free market is at all, and the clearest evidence of that is the financial crisis … When I say free markets, I mean no favoritism to K Street lobbyists.” Banks like Goldman Sachs were not fined for their role in the financial crisis — rather, they were rewarded with bailouts, Brat has said.

Brat…spent much of the campaign slamming both parties for being in the pocket of “Wall Street crooks” and D.C. insiders. The folks who caused the financial crisis, Brat says, “went onto Obama’s rolodex, the Republican leadership, Eric’s rolodex.”

During several campaign appearances, Brat says what upset him the most about Cantor was his role in gutting the last attempt at congressional ethics reform.

5. Little Evidence for Democratic Crossover Voting

There has been some speculation that Democrats “crossed over” to swing the vote against Cantor in Virginia’s open primary. But Scott Clement throws cold water on the theory in The Washington Post.

Virginia’s lack of party registration makes it difficult to pin down whether Democrats crossed over in large numbers, but local level turnout provides some indirect clues on whether this phenomenon was widespread. On two counts, the data cast doubt on whether Democratic cross-over voting caused Cantor’s loss.

While Republican primary turnout spiked by 28 percent over 2012, according to the State Board of Elections, Cantor received nearly 8,500 fewer votes this year than he did in the 2012 Republican primary, a drop that was larger than Brat’s 7,200-vote margin of victory. Regardless of how many Democrats turned out to oppose Cantor, he still would have prevailed had he maintained the same level of support as in his 2012 landslide.

If Democrats showed up in large numbers to vote against Cantor, turnout should have spiked highest from 2012 in Democratic-leaning areas, with Cantor seeing an especially large drop-off in support. In fact, turnout rose slightly more in counties that voted more heavily for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

6. Did Cantor Hurt Himself With a Vote on Obamacare?

David Mark offers another “overlooked reason” for Cantor’s defeat:

In late March, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor brought up a bill that passed by voice vote. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that. Except this time the Virginia Republican’s move triggered a groundswell of conservative opposition — the very type of negative political passion that helped contribute to Cantor’s stunning GOP primary defeat Tuesday.

The legislation patched the sustainable growth rate requirement in the Medicare program. There was a good policy reason for pushing the measure through…

But to tea party groups and other Cantor foes, it enabled Obamacare — the worst type of Republican betrayal. It was just that type of maneuver that allowed Republican challenger David Brat — an otherwise little-known college economics professor — to brand Majority Leader Cantor an insider wheeler-dealer bailing out his crony contributors.

7. Who Is Dave Brat?

One clear takeaway here is that the Republican Party continues to have a major problem with its radicalized base. Cantor is not only very conservative, he’s also a seasoned and experienced legislator, and someone who can raise a lot of money. The seat is safe, so Brat will almost certainly enter Congress as a back-bencher who is prone to using extreme rhetoric — he wrote in 2011 that Hitler’s rise “could all happen again, quite easily.”

While little is known about Brat, Reid Epstein offers a few insights at The Wall Street Journal:

An economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., Mr. Brat appeared more interested in campaigning to make a point than in winning. The Washington Post reported last month that he no-showed meetings with key conservative activists in the capital. His excuse: He had final exams to grade…

There are clues to Mr. Brat’s ideology in his academic CV. His current book project is titled “Ethics as Leading Economic Indicator? What went Wrong? Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition and Human Reason.”

His other published works include the titles “God and Advanced Mammon – Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” and “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand.”

Odds and Ends

Here’s some additional reporting that may be of interest. Mike DeBonis profiles Brat’s longshot Democratic opponent, Jack Trammell, for The Washington Post. National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher looks at how Cantor’s internal pollster“whiffed” in projecting a 34-point win for Cantor. Robert Costa reports for The Washington Post that Cantor won’t run as a write-in candidate. His colleagues Rosalind Helderman and Laura Vozzella consider whether anti-Semitism played a role in the outcome. And Charles Pierce’s take at Esquire is always worth reading.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Joshua Holland

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.


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