Eric Cantor loss: GOP dislike or circumstance?

By Neal McNamara | June 11, 2014
Eric Cantor, Diana Cantor

On Tuesday morning, Eric Cantor was not in his district, he was at a $2,500-per-head fundraiser in Washington, D.C. His mind focused on cash, he probably wasn’t thinking about that day’s election, how in his home district thousands of ordinary people were headed to the polls to vote, and how he might lose an election he had handily won many times before.

Why would he consider the worst? The Eric Cantor of Tuesday morning wasn’t some third-tier Congressman with a wishy-washy record. He was a Republican superstar, a member of the super-conservative Congressional “young guns,” an amazing fundraiser, culling millions for just his own reelection.

He had done everything right to become a life-long member of Congress, maybe the next Speaker of the House. Cantor spent buckets on TV ads; he droned voters with dubious attacks on his opponent; he offering poll-tested platitudes and political speeches in place of anything real; he had perfect hair, expensive clothes, nice teeth, and always smiled for the cameras.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, that’s how you win elections, right?

“The result was that Cantor’s real constituency wasn’t the folks back home,” wrote The Federalist columnist Robert Tracinski on Wednesday. “His constituency was the Republican leadership and the Republican establishment. That’s whom he really answered to. Guess what? Folks in the seventh district figured that out.”

Precisely. David Brat’s win on Tuesday may prove that voters are sick of the slickness, sick of politicians whose “district” is Washington, D.C., and whose constituents are whoever has the most cash. In Brat, they found a guy who was just like them, someone who reflected their values, and someone who they thought, quite reasonably, would represent their interests in D.C.

“Right now we have too many mini princes in D.C.,” Brat told MSNBC Wednesday morning.

One sad fact, the Cantor campaign spent more on food than Brat spent on his entire campaign.

Host Ben Shapiro, in a column for Breitbart, laid out a number of shifts that will come as a result of Brat’s win. Firstly, Cantor and his young guns – Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, others – are sputtering and are ripe for replacement. And on Tuesday, the big businesses that back the GOP establishment found out that money isn’t enough to own the government.

“They got outclassed by an on-the-ground grassroots force. The split between these two groups paves the way for an all-out brawl between the corporatist Republican establishment and the Tea Party capitalists come 2016,” Shapiro wrote.

THE FLIP SIDE

On the other side, there are a few facts that may mess with the Brat the Giant Slayer narrative, showing that he won not because of God – as he has claimed – or because people hate the GOP establishment, but because of an extraordinary set of circumstances that came together around this primary.

First, voter turnout was extremely low, around 20 percent of registered voters according to poll workers who spoke to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Typically, primary elections draw hardcore voters, who may have been paying closer attention to the local-oriented Brat than the D.C.-oriented Cantor.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, was the immigration issue.

Also on Tuesday, voters in South Carolina voted in a primary for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. Various conservative groups had targeted Graham because of his support of immigration reform and a path to citizenship. Far more conservative voters reelected Graham than those in Cantor’s district, who voted 43 percent for Barack Obama in 2012.

Cantor is far more conservative than Graham on immigration, and does not support amnesty. But, as hosts Michael Medved and David Boze suggested on Wednesday, Cantor may have failed to get that message out, allowing Brat to become the anti-immigration reform candidate.

“Cantor just refused to talk about the issue,” Medved said. “Lindsey Graham was front and center on it saying we need a path to legalization. By the way, 70 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Americans support reform.”

So, if Cantor had bothered to talk to his constituents about immigration, maybe he would’ve ended up like Graham, easily winning his primary.

“The other thing that Graham did was tell people who disagree with him on immigration, ‘Here are the other issues I’m defending you on.’ And Cantor, it seems to me from what I’ve read, he was very focused on internal DC beltway politics, raising money for the Republicans. He didn’t think it was a race he had to pay attention to,” Boze said.

So, was Cantor’s defeat a grassroots backlash against the GOP establishment, or a calamity of circumstances (Cantor’s complacency, low voter turnout, and Brat’s ability to speak definitively about immigration reform)?

The answer to that question will come in November. As other establishment candidates have, Cantor may stage a write-in candidacy. It worked for Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman in 2006, when he was defeated by businessman Ned Lamont in a primary. Lieberman ran as an Independent, and won.

“I’m concerned that if he tries to run a write-in campaign, his name wouldn’t officially be on the ballot, would voters write him in?” Boze wondered.

“I’m going to support Dave Brat because he won the primary,” Medved responded

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