Up until very recently, certain truths had begun to take shape this election season. The political establishment seemed fairly confident that extremist primary challengers were, unlike 2010 and 2012, coming up short against Republican incumbents. The GOP establishment had figured out how to beat back Tea Partiers and had reasserted itself as the dominant force in conservative electoral politics.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R) primary loss in Virginia last night made it abundantly clear that the embrace of those truths was premature.
Cantor, the second highest-ranking member of the House was defeated by [virtual unknown Dave Brat, a first-time candidate], an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, in the 7th District GOP primary by a commanding 55% to 44% margin with 100% of the precincts reporting their results.“Look, obviously we came up short,” said Rep. Cantor in his concession speech.
With the benefit of hindsight, there were hints this was coming – most of us simply chose not to see them as precursors at the time. It was just last month, after all, that the Majority Leader was booed and heckled by Republican activists in his own district.
Regardless, Cantor’s defeat has upended Washington in fundamental ways. The Majority Leader was arguably Capitol Hill’s most powerful Republican and Cantor’s office was, in practical terms, the headquarters for his party’s establishment. The vast Beltway GOP apparatus – lobbyists, interest groups, campaign committees, donors, conservative media – relied on Cantor and his team for direction, in large part because everyone assumed he’d be Speaker of the House in 2017, if not sooner.
And as the dust settles, no one seems able to say with confidence who’s in charge among congressional Republicans right now. Indeed, because Cantor’s double-digit primary loss has no modern precedent – leaders have lost re-election fights, but never in a primary – it’s not even clear if the Virginia congressman will remain in his post for the rest of this year.
As for why Cantor lost, that’s perhaps slightly more complex than it might appear.
To be sure, Brat hammered Cantor on immigration – an ironic attack, given that Cantor has been instrumental in killing comprehensive immigration reform in the lower chamber. The incumbent scrambled to convince constituents that he hated “amnesty” for “illegals” – his words, not mine – as much as any right-wing activist, but the appeals obviously fell on deaf ears.
But plenty of other Republican incumbents faced similar pushback in GOP primaries – Ellmers in North Carolina, Boehner in Ohio, Graham in South Carolina, et al – and managed to beat back intra-party challengers with relative ease.
The question isn’t whether immigration as an issue did Cantor in. Rather, the question is why the attacks worked on Cantor when they failed against other lawmakers in similar situations. The answer, I suspect, is that the Majority Leader failed at the basics: he positioned himself as a national leader and neglected constituents in his district. Cantor hopscotched the nation and the world while Brat was knocking on doors, connecting with Republicans directly.
It’s how a seven-term incumbent can spend $5 million in his home district and still lose. Cantor spent about as much money on steakhouse dinners as Brat spent on his entire campaign, and Brat still won by double-digits.
In theory, the Majority Leader could launch a write-in campaign in the hopes of keeping his career alive, but as of this morning, there’s no indication that this is going to happen. On the contrary, 24 hours ago, Cantor was the Speaker in Waiting, but today, Cantor’s career in electoral politics appears to be over.
As for the Virginia lawmaker’s legacy, my goal is not to kick a guy when he’s down, but Cantor leaves the stage having accomplished very little. In fact, the Majority Leader has never been what one might consider an effective congressman – Cantor has been disdainful of compromises; he’s shown little patience for policy details; and he developed a reputation among those who worked with him behind the scenes for being unlikable and difficult. The Majority Leader has feuded with Speaker Boehner and his team nearly as much as Cantor has struggled to get along with the White House.
Perhaps the most notable moment of Cantor’s congressional career came in 2011 when President Obama and Speaker Boehner very nearly reached an agreement on a $4 trillion debt-reduction “Grand Bargain,” only to have Cantor intervene to kill it.
The Beltway press has long considered the Virginia Republican a “serious wonk,” but that’s never made any sense. Cantor was preoccupied with strategy and electoral goals, not substance – note the “rebranding” efforts that seemed to pop up about once a year – and he never demonstrated an expertise in any area of public policy. Despite his lengthy career and influential post, very few bills he championed ever became law.
Still, Cantor was nevertheless a center of power in Washington, and his departure creates a vacuum. The race to fill it is on.