6 Takeaways from Eric Cantor’s Primary Defeat

CantorIn a stunning upset, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to a Tea Party backed opponent in Virginia’s primary elections on Tuesday. Cantor was the second highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, and broadly expected to succeed John Boehner as the next Speaker of the House. He was one of the Republican Party’s celebrated “Young Guns” who were expected to rejuvenate the party, and had rapidly risen through the party ranks since his election to the House in 2001.

Cantor’s seat was generally regarded as safe, yet he was defeated by Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor from a small college in his district who had spent only $200,000 on his campaign. Cantor, on the other hand, had poured over $ 5 million into his own campaign. Yet Cantor lost by a whopping 11% on election night (44.5% to 55.5%).

So what does it all mean? Here are 6 takeaways from the election primary:

1. Impact of low voter turnout

Low voter turnout can dramatically skew election results. Over 220,000 people voted in this district’s 2012 election, but only about 65,000 bothered to vote in this year’s Republican primary. Cantor’s own internal poll showed him leading his opponent by 34 points just 2 weeks ago. But as Ezra Klein noted soon after the election results were announced,

“Republicans” are not the same as “Republican primary voters.” … It’s possible and even likely that the vast majority of Republicans in Virginia’s 7th District liked Cantor just fine. But primaries only count the people who come out to vote.

2. Appealing to the base

Cantor handily won over his opponents in previous elections, but redistricting in 2010 made his suburban Richmond district much more conservative by adding in other rural areas that he didn’t previously represent. Maintaining support in Richmond alone was no longer enough. This time around, his opponent successfully appealed to the strongly conservative rural Christian base in his district. He painted Cantor as a Washington insider who spent more time greasing the wheels of Congress than representing his home district.

As David Wasserman, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, notes,

Mr. Cantor, who dreamed of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House, was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative.

3. Defining your opponent

Dave BratIn his campaign against Cantor, Dave Brat capitalized on conservative opposition to immigration reform. He labeled Cantor as “The number one Republican supporter of [immigration] amnesty” even though Cantor, along with other House Republicans, had only cautiously supported a negotiated compromise on immigration.

Brat was also quite savvy in his use of the media. He received support from conservative radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin who helped to spread his charges against Cantor and also received extensive online coverage from Breitbart and the Drudge Report. In the closing days of the campaign Cantor tried to tack back against support for immigration reform, but it was too late.

4. Taking the populist “high road”

Brat presented himself as a populist candidate and labeled Cantor as a politician who was more committed to Wall Street than Main Street. Brat claimed,

“I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers.”

Cantor, who in his leadership position in the House has served on the House’s Financial Services, International Relations and Ways and Means Committees and was a major fundraiser for the Republican party, could not shake the accusation that he was an establishment insider who cared more about party issues than those of his home constituents. The tactic worked.

5. Adjustments to House leadership

Earlier today Eric Cantor announced that he will be stepping down as House Majority Leader at the end of July. Within hours of his defeat, Republican House members had already begun jockeying to fill his place. The leading candidate to replace him as Majority Leader is Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). the third highest ranking member of the House. He is being challenged by Pete Sessions (R-TX) the chairman of the House Rules Committee and a former GOP campaign chief. Others have their eye on McCarthy’s position and are lining up to take his place it if becomes vacant.

One may expect House Republicans to be somewhat preoccupied for the next while as they frantically work behind the scenes to reposition themselves within the political hierarchy. They may have little inclination or energy to address other matters as they do so.

6. Redefining the playing field

Some are saying that Cantor’s defeat at the hands of an unknown populist Tea Party candidate sends a strong message to other Republicans seeking reelection this fall. They had better watch their backs.

As Katherine Miller of Buzzfeed notes,

Every Republican who wants to keep his or her seat … will likely study the results of Tuesday’s election.

The Tea Party, which a few weeks ago seemed to be loosing out to more establishment candidates in the primaries, is feeling itself empowered by Tuesday’s election results. This fundamentally changes the political ground game. Will Republican candidates find it necessary to tack to the right to keep the support of their conservative base (as Cantor tried unsuccessfully to do)? And will Democrats attempt to benefit from undecided voters (some 40% of the electorate) who prefer more centrist policies?

It is shaping up to be an interesting fall race.

Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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