On Tuesday, June 10, 2014, U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor suffered a surprising and resounding defeat in his reelection bid for his Virginia congressional seat. Cantor, considered by many to be a future Speaker of the House, was trounced by a previously unknown college economics professor, David Brat, who ran a shoestring campaign espousing a Tea Party world-view.
This election upset has produced much prognostication that this defeat will re-energize the Tea Party movement. In fact, it is still not clear what actually occurred that resulted in Cantor’s defeat.
The Big Unanswered Question of Eric Cantor’s Defeat: The Democrats
With all due deference to David Brat, as I see it he did not win this election contest, rather Eric Cantor lost it. Cantor spent over $5 million dollars trying to define David Brat, and because Brat was a local college professor, Cantor ran rather foolish ads claiming he was a liberal. The stereotyping did not work. Brat, who raised only $231,000 and spent about half of that sum, got his message out by working the district, clearly establishing that he was anything but a liberal. This contest was not decided by money.
One of the last polls before the election showed Cantor with a comfortable lead: 52% to 39%. This poll, eight days before the election, showed the trend was going against Cantor (he had dropped 13 points from a poll ten days earlier), so Cantor mounted a vigorous end of campaign effort to stanch the bleeding. Yet he still lost by a significant margin, but not because as some commentators claim he was over confident. Eight days is a long time in any campaign.
The final vote (according to the Associated Press reports) shows Cantor received 28,898 votes (44.5%) and Brat 36,110 votes (55.5%). Thus, a total of 65,008 voters in this 2014 contest. Some commentators concluded Cantor lost because of weak voter turnout, which appears the case on the surface, since in the last general election in 2012, when Cantor beat his Democratic opponent with 58.4% of the vote, there were a total of 381,909 votes. The 65,008 votes cast in this year’s primary meant only 17% of the voters in his district participated in this election.
But low voter turnout was not Cantor’s problem. In fact, there was an increase in voter turnout in 2014 over his previous primary two years earlier. In 2012, Cantor won his primary with 79% of the vote but only 47,037 people voting: Cantor had 37,369 (79.4%) versus his primary opponent that year, Floyd Bayne (a Tea Party candidate) who received 9,668 (20.6%). So, in fact, this 2014 primary election shows an additional 17,971 voters showed up for the primary, so it was not low voter turnout.
Last fall, when visiting a conference of Virginia attorneys in Richmond, I had occasion to talk with some of Cantor’s constituents, who told me that Virginia Democrats were going to try to take Cantor out of play by supporting his primary opponent. Virginia has open primaries where Democrats can vote for or against Republicans, so this is fair. Democrats selected their candidate for this congressional race in a convention, and they did so before the June 10, 2014, primary. They had unanimously selected Jack Trammell as their candidate for this seat. So Democrats and Independents could easily have voted for anyone opposing Cantor. In fact, to me it seems many did. These were the people who would not show up in the pre-election polls. And they are not likely to be talking about it openly until after the general election, although former Congressman Ben Jones has been very open about his effort to use this tactic to defeat Cantor.
If, in fact, this explains Cantor’s downfall, it was a touché move by Democrats, for their candidate Jack Trammell clearly has a better shot now in the general election in this overwhelmingly Republican congressional district. Since I have strong reason to believe this may be the key explanation in Cantor’s downfall, I have difficulty seeing Dave Brat’s win as a victory for the Tea Party. Yet that is how it is being played.
Cantor’s Defeat as a Tea Party Victory
While local Tea Party activists did support Dave Brat, national Tea Party organizations did nothing to help him. He campaigned with zero support from national organizations like Club for Growth and Heritage Action. The only national support he received was from talk radio hostess Laura Ingraham, who openly rejects the Tea Party label and wants it dropped.
National media is calling it a Tea Party victory because Brat campaigned on Tea Party issues of small government, fiscal responsibility and anti-immigration, plus he clearly had local Tea Party support. Brat’s campaign mantra was: “Eric Cantor does not represent the views of his constituents in the Seventh District of Virginia; he represents large corporations that want cheap labor.” And Bart hammered Cantor on immigration, which became his big issue.
Brat has signed the FAIR Congressional Task Force’s anti-immigration pledge, which is apparently what attracted Laura Ingraham to support him for she seeks out those who will sign the pledge. The Wall Street Journal reported Ingraham attributed Brat’s win to Cantor’s “associating with corporate executives and pro-immigration-overhaul Democrats.” In short, the fact that Cantor even “associated” with such people—although he had rejected immigration reform—was sufficient to remove him from office.
According to the pre-election poll (linked above) this district is 86% white, with only a sprinkling of minorities: Hispanic (1%), Black (6%), Asian (2%), and Other (5%). Clearly, Brat’s xenophobic rhetoric appealed to many voters in this district. But the pre-election polling indicated that eight days before the vote immigration was not a big issue. Rather it was one of the lesser issues. The polled showed: Jobs and economy (22%), Government spending and debt (30%), Stopping Obamacare (25%), Illegal immigration (9%), Social issues (5%) International issues (4%), and Other (5%). In short, the issue polling, like the voting polling, does not explain Brat’s win, although cross-over Democrats would explain it.
While there has been some cursory analysis of the Democratic cross-over potential, which without getting down into the statistical weeds I find unconvincing, it is certainly a much bigger national story if in fact latent Tea Party thinking is resurgent. Accordingly, the possibility that cross-over Democrats took down Cantor has been set aside. The perception has become the reality. Both mainstream Republicans—if that description can be used to those who are not Tea Party nutcases—and the Tea Party Republicans are reading this election as a clarion call to move the GOP to accommodate the Tea Party fringe—or else get a primary race in a safe congressional district like Cantor got.
A Dismal Future for the GOP Unless It Was Democratic Cross Over
I know well this radical fringe conservative movement, and their thinking. While these people are known for the anti-government, anti-equality, anti-spending, anti-immigrants, anti-everything obstructionist ideology, it is their underlying personalities that attract (and hold) them to such thinking. They are, in fact, wired to think as they do, both by nature and nurture. (See, for example, Pinker’s How the Mind Works and Westen’s The Political Brain.) These are American authoritarians or as I have described them: “Conservatives without conscience.”
Viewing the defeat of Eric Cantor, a candidate with all the charisma of a wire brush who became conspicuously more interested in becoming Speaker of the House than tending to his otherwise safe congressional seat, as the victim of a right-wing coup has certainly reinvigorated the Tea Party activists. To get their way, rest assured they will soon be busy further fracturing the already battered Republican Party. They will first test their strength it the coming contest to replace Cantor within the House GOP leadership. Then they will call for closing down government, refusing to raise the debt limit, fighting to block a new and much needed immigration reform, and on and on—another fifty votes to repeal Obamacare.
Eventually what happened in California will happen nationally, but will take a long time. In California, where gerrymandering and other voting ploys gave the Tea Party-dominated Republicans power, they blocked Democrats from governing until voters had enough and removed the GOP from all statewide power. Today, the California government is working, a fully functioning democracy, and a Democratic governor and legislature are busy repairing the damage done by years of Republican obstructionism.
So rather than simply accept Cantor’s defeat as evidence of the resurgence of Tea Party activism, and as a GOP problem they must deal with before the California-type solution occurs, I say take a hard look at Cantor’s defeat to better and fully understand why he went down. Those who polled Cantor’s race have egg all over their faces. But modern polling is not as bad as all the pre-election polls of Cantor’s race suggest. This race needs a serious post-mortem, an autopsy, to see if it was Tea Party supporters or mischievous Democrats who are responsible. The pollsters who seem to have blown it should now get to the bottom of it. I have heard too many rumors of Democrats crossing over to simply dismiss that potential.