I always thought that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was the brat, the youngish sharp-elbowed, supercilious, conservative Congressman assumed to be John Boehner’s heir apparent as Speaker of the House. Bookish. Dogmatic. So determined was he to be the ideological antidote to a liberal Obama administration, he was a driving force behind the Republican congressional strategy to oppose the entire White House agenda even if it meant making the nation ungovernable.
Now along comes another Brat, one David Brat, an unknown Tea Party challenger who shockingly defeated Cantor by an embarrassingly wide margin (56-45) in Tuesday’s primary for Virginia’s 7th district GOP nomination. With very little money, college economics professor Brat trounced Cantor from the right, which a few days ago would have seemed impossible. Described by Politico, as “one of the most stunning losses in modern House politics,” Cantor is the first majority leader to be so ousted since the office was created in 1899.
In the language of the Huffington Post, David Brat succeeded by portraying Cantor as an “impure conservative.” Cantor, after all, had (as he positioned himself for the Speakership) recently worked to prevent a government shutdown, voted to raise the debt ceiling, and supported a GOP version of immigration reform, at least when it came to educating the children of illegals.
The story line out of Washington is that Cantor lost because immigration reform is a Republican third rail and that even supporting consideration of a modest Dream Act provision means electrocution not re-election. I think that analysis is simplistic. Note Sen. Lindsay Graham’s success in South Carolina against a Tea Party challenger who tried to use Graham’s immigration position to oust him.
I think Cantor lost because, in the oft-used words of Tip O’Neill, all politics is local. Cantor was running around the country raising money for others (keynoting $20,000/a head steak dinners, as WGBH’s Jim Braude put it) and collecting his Speakership IOUs instead of heeding the implication of changes that made his safe suburban Richmond district more rural. He didn’t spend the requisite time there, and top notch staff-driven constituent service, which can often cover such lapses, was reportedly in short supply.
There are other suggestions that because Virginia is a cross-over state, some Democrats may have voted in the Republican primary for Brat to stick it to Cantor, never dreaming that, with a 30-point lead in the polls, Cantor could actually be ejected.
He lost touch with his district party activists. When Cantor’s handpicked candidates for local party offices lost, he got a wake-up call and poured big money into the race, but his campaign was too cute by half. His big TV ad tried to portray Ayn Rand libertarian Brat as an out-and-out liberal, and that laughable attack didn’t stick. At the same time, Brat’s absurd charges that Cantor was too liberal did stick, as did his attacked on Cantor’s big money interests.
Cantor was an ambitious, Frank Underwood-style schemer (House of Cards), deeply conservative and only moderate in contrast to what will follow. Brat will be worse for many reasons, and Cantor’s replacement as Majority Leader, to be voted on June 19, will likely be a Heritage Foundation ideologue or worse.
Unlike many, I take no comfort in the defeat of Eric Cantor at the hands of David Brat, who told supporters that his victory was God’s speaking to America through the voters. Cantors’ loss strikes fear into any Republicans thinking of rolling up their sleeves to address serious issues rather than just pandering to extreme partisans with re-election red meat. The fallout will be far-reaching.
Tuesday changed the landscape of the election season. Just as Obama had announced the destruction of Al Qaeda, observers had been pronouncing the death of the Tea Party . That report of its death, as Mark Twain might have had it, was greatly exaggerated.
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