Cennamology Chief Editor
The narrative so far in the 2014 primary cycle has been that this is the year that the establishment Republicans take the party back from the Tea Party. Until the Texas runoffs two weeks ago, this seemed to be true. Nevertheless, this was supposed to be the cycle where the influence of the Tea Party goes away, and many commentators, myself included, believed that.
However, with Eric Cantor losing his primary by 11 points last night to an obscure economics professor named David Brat, boy were we wrong!
Political junkies all over the country were shell-shocked. The establishment in Washington and Richmond did not see this coming. Nobody knew how to explain it. A powerful incumbent who spent over $5 million loses to a college professor who spent only around $200,000. Not even money, which is usually the deciding factor in Congressional races, could save Eric Cantor in Virginia's 7th District last night.
Eric Cantor was, and still is, a destructive force in Congress who would have never let immigration reform pass. Nevertheless, Cantor's line that the current system is flawed provided ad fodder for David Brat. Mailers from both candidates' in this primary promoted how anti-immigration reform they were. However, Brat may have been more successful in painting Cantor as far more pro-immigration that he actually is than Cantor was at deflecting the charges. Because of this, conventional wisdom at this moment is suggesting that immigration was the deciding issue in this race.
However, the same night, pro-immigration reform Republican Senator Lindsey Graham won his reelection primary by more than 45 points against a band of Tea Party challengers. At the beginning of this cycle, Graham was considered one of the Republican senators most vulnerable in a primary. Last summer, he helped write the Senate's immigration reform bill, which Cantor helped ensure would go nowhere in the House. Graham is way more pro-immigration reform than half of Cantor is, but yet Graham is the one who will be returning to Congress next year.
Therefore, while it certainly may have played a supporting role in Cantor's downfall, immigration reform was hardly the leading lady. I think the factor that is largely being glossed over in discussing why Cantor lost is the vast unpopularity of Congress.
Congress's dirt-poor approval rating is the main reason why Cantor lost because of one thing that sets Virginia's 7th District apart from most: they disapprove of both Congress AND their Congressman. Here's why Cantor's case is unique: despite Congress always having lower approval ratings that explosive diarrhea, over 90 percent of Congressmen and women are reelected because most districts' voters hate Congress but love their Congressman. This is not the case in Virginia's 7th. According to a recent poll by Public Policy Polling, 63 percent of voters in Cantor's district disapproved of his job while only 30 percent approved. Among Republicans, 43 percent approved and 49 percent disapproved. The same poll found that 72 percent of voters in Cantor's district approved of immigration reform.
So, if polls mean anything, Cantor’s unpopularity within his district was more instrumental in his loss than immigration reform. Brat’s campaign did an admirable job of informing voters of the presence of an alternative to Cantor on the ballot. Therefore, Brat’s hardliner approach to immigration reform probably had less to do with his victory than the fact that he is not Eric Cantor. Cantor is an unpopular leader of an unpopular Congress, and that combined with his unpopularity within his district is what led to his loss.
In fact, it was reported that Cantor was not even in his district at all on the day of the primary. From what I have learned working on campaigns, that is a cardinal sin. That just shows that Cantor’s world revolves around Washington, not his constituents. As yesterday’s result shows, Cantor’s constituents were wise to this.
So what happens now? Well, Republicans in Congress will be too scared to do anything about immigration reform, so any progress on that issue will likely be stalled for at least the next ten years. The narrative that Cantor lost because of his "support" for immigration reform is so oversold at this point that Republicans in Congress will not advance the issue out of fear of losing their seats. However, it was hard to see them moving on this issue in the first place. So in the grand scheme of things, Cantor’s loss will not change anything when it comes to the likelihood of passing immigration reform – because as long as Republicans control a chamber of Congress, the chances of it passing are (and always have been) zero.
Also, these results indicate that the Tea Party is (unfortunately) not dead, nor will its death occur this election cycle. Last night proved once and for all that it is still alive and well. The Tea Party’s momentum has shifted drastically these last 3 Tuesdays, and their influence will sadly carry on. Mississippi will not be the Tea Party’s Waterloo as I thought a week ago, as Cantor’s downfall is such an earth-shattering upset that Tea Partiers will be able to look upon this primary cycle with glee, despite early disappointments.
Because the Tea Party is not dead, the Republicans' march further and further to the far right will go on. Cantor has usually been seen as more conservative and more dogmatic than John Boehner, and it seemed that ultraconservatives much preferred him to be speaker than Boehner. A world where Eric Cantor is “too liberal” for many Republican voters is a world where more and more Republican lawmakers kowtow to the extremists in the party.
All in all, Cantor’s loss is a very good thing and progressives should join me in celebrating (as I am sure most have already).
The nightmare of “Speaker Eric Cantor,” will fortunately never be a reality. He was a partisan who put party first and America second and did whatever he could to block anything President Obama wanted to do. A House of Representatives run by Eric Cantor would have strengthened the hold that donors like the Koch Brothers already have on the lower chamber. A Cantor-led House would have made even the Dennis Hastert-led House look like champions of the middle class.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California will likely replace Cantor as majority leader, paving the way for an all-out bloodbath for McCarthy’s job likely to bring the worst out of many influential Republican members of Congress going further and further to right in order to satisfy the ever-growing Tea Party wing of the conference. The broadcast of this House of Cards worthy showdown will likely alienate more and more people, as the prospective candidates will never cease to prove just how coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs they are.
Cantor’s loss is a cause for celebration because it shows that money does not ensure victory in politics. Everybody from Wall Street, to polluting industry interests, to K Street, to the NRA bankrolled Cantor both in this race and in every election of his Congressional career.
Even though I probably agree with Dave Brat on very little, I am still quite glad to see a candidate emerge victorious against the big money corrupting our political system to the point of no repair. Brat energized the grassroots, and I hope there will be more elections like this to show that the true deciders of elections lie within the grassroots, not within the walls of mega mansions. Candidates who win by organizing and firing up the grassroots instead of relying on corporate money inspire citizens to be politically active by convincing them that they do not need to be wealthy to make a difference.
Getting money out of politics is one of the most important things we need to do in order to get the American political system working for the middle class again. Democrat or Republican, any candidate who demonstrates that winning an election does not require sucking up to the interests of the privileged few deserves some praise. If more Congressional campaigns with shoe-string budgets are successful, then maybe policymakers will work on getting money out of politics. The chances of this will increase if more upset elections like this one confirm that big bucks are not prerequisites of elected office.
America will be better off without Eric Cantor in Congress, even though other partisan hacks are climbing up the leadership ladder to take his place. The only way for Congress to get working again is to vote out more obstructionists, and Eric Cantor was the worst of all of them.
Although it is basically statistically impossible for Democrats to take back the House this cycle, it is the only way for Congress to get working again. The Republican Party is at war with itself to the point where its incumbents are more concerned in showing how purely right-wing they are compared to their opponents than they are about governing. A Democratic-led House of Representatives seems to be the only situation where Congress can start getting things done again.