While I have been experiencing a near-complete isolation from news media, recently (I basically live in a rather-well-appointed boondocks, with extremely limited internet access), Eric Cantor’s surprise loss on Tuesday is worth addressing. Given my inability to follow the elections in any kind of real-time, I’ve relied on others’ reporting and commentary to offer something of a picture here. What’s presented here is by no means an exhaustive account of the various theories about Cantor’s defeat.
To begin with, the fact: Eric Cantor has been ousted by Tea Party challenger David Brat, an economics professor from Randolph-Macon College, who won the Republican primary with a 55-45 margin. Now, on to what some others have written about this result.
]George Zornick of The Nation asks, “How did this happen? How did one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress lose to a political neophyte that he outspent 40-to-1?” There does not seem to be much of a consensus as to why this has happened – although, that does appear to be evolving rather rapidly. I thought I would pick up on what a few of the commentators I follow have said…
Zornick, argues that Cantor’s loss is linked with the Immigration debate – a popular reason offered by a number of people. After pointing out that right wing media coverage of supposed waves of invading South Americans “has been wall to wall”, he brings it back to why this has hurt Cantor. Cantor’s “biggest foray into the immigration debate was to propose and draft a Republican version of the DREAM Act dubbed the KIDS Act,” a bill that stalled in late 2013, partly due to “disagreements about whether youth who obtained citizenship would be able to then sponsor their parents for legalization.” Therefore, Zornick writes, “Brat was already running hard against Cantor for supposed softness on immigration.” Rather than “coming at [the issue] from an unhinged, xenophobic and divisive position, Brat played the populist” by employing the (clearly effective) approach of branding Cantor as “a tight friend of Wall Street, the US Chamber of Commerce—another broad theme of Brat’s campaign.” Brat argued that Cantor’s alleged desire for immigration reform was, in Zornick’s words, “done so his buddies in the corporate world could employ more cheap labor.” This is not an argument I’ve heard or read before, when it comes to the US immigration debate. It has a distinct Gilded Age Robber Barron flavor.
Zornick rightly points to a couple of caveats regarding this upset. For example, that “this was a House race where fewer than 100,000 people voted, and so it’s perhaps unwise to draw broad political lessons.” In addition, he writes that Cantor’s loss could have been partly the result of Tea Party revenge: “Conservative activists made a convincing case Tuesday night that Cantor’s strong-arming of Tea Party types during state-level political meetings and conventions boiled grassroots anger.”
“perception is reality. Cantor was perceived as soft on immigration, and may have lost because of it. The perception that he lost for that reason, in turn, will terrify Republicans for even dipping a toe in the reform waters”
Interestingly, and before we go on to opposing views – that immigration was at the root of Cantor’s loss doesn’t seem to be that widely held. The majority of the articles I found quickly stated something to the effect of “No, it wasn’t immigration.” Not this MSNBC post, though.
In particular, Politico published a story (which I found via Glenn Greenwald’s Twitter feed) that pointed to a poll that found the following:
“About 72 percent of registered voters in Cantor’s district polled on Tuesday said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” support immigration reform that would secure the borders, block employers from hiring those here illegally, and allow undocumented residents without criminal backgrounds to gain legal status – three key tenets of an overhaul, according to a poll by the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling and commissioned by the liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change.
“Looking just at Republicans in Cantor’s district, the poll found that 70 percent of GOP registered voters would support such a plan, while 27 percent would oppose.”
In addition, the same poll found that Cantor was “deeply unpopular in his district”, so his loss perhaps shouldn’t have been quite so surprising as it was – although, his position in the leadership is most likely what made it such a surprise (many have pointed to the fact that he’s the first majority leader to lose reelection since the positions were first created, in 1899). From the Politico piece, then (forgive the clunky punctuation):
“‘Cantor didn’t lose because of immigration,’ pollster Tom Jensen wrote in the memo obtained in advance by POLITICO. ‘He lost because of the deep unpopularity of both himself personally and of the Republican House leadership. Even in his conservative district voters still want immigration reform passed, and they want it this year.’”
John Nichols, another writer for The Nation, sees a different issue at the root of Brat’s win: that of an unexpected complexity: “the prospect of conservatives who are ready and willing to criticize big business.” While Nichols mentions Brat’s anti-immigration position and campaigning, he says the fact that even this criticism came with an “anti-corporate twist” is just a part of Brat’s focus on running against a Republican who was more interested in corporate interests than popular interests (or, Wall Street over Main Street). Cantor is one of the House’s most successful fundraisers, apparently, and is often seen as being in the pockets of (or subservient to) Big Business. Brat certainly saw this. Where Zornick tied it to immigration, Nichols highlights Brat’s promise to “fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.” And Brat’s declaration that he was “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.”
“He ran as something rare in American politics — so rare that many political commentators have a hard time comprehending the calculus. On a number of issues, the challenger positioned himself as an anti-corporate conservative”
Brat reserved his greatest criticism for Cantor when discussing the STOCK Act, intended to ban insider trading by members of Congress and their families. “CNN discovered that Cantor altered the language of the House version in order to allow family members and spouses to continue insider trading on congressional knowledge. In my view, this action was beneath the dignity of the office. Virginians deserve better and I pledge to treat everyone equally under the law,” wrote Brat.
I agree with Nichols that, “If Brat does go to Congress as a conservative critic of big business, and of the GOP's alliance with corporate interests, he could open up a lot of new debates within the party, and beyond its boundaries.” That his district is overwhelmingly Republican does suggest that he will prevail of his Democratic opponent, fellow Randolph-Macon College Jack Trammell.
Lee Fang also believes that Brat won by focusing on GOP corruption. The challenger took a very populist stance, one that resonates with non-Republicans, too (in fact, maybe more so, given the rhetoric of the Occupy movements and Democratic senators such as Elizabeth Warren. Brat said repeatedly on the campaign trail: “All of the investment banks, up in New York and D.C., they should have gone to jail.” Even if his district were not safely Republican, one could see that message winning over Democrats and independents in a contested general in November. Like Nichols, above, Fang brings up the STOCK Act and Brat’s accusations of Cantor and the Republican Party’s being in the pockets of Wall Street. Also like Nichols, Fang offers his thoughts on what Brat’s move to Washington could mean:
“If Brat ascends to Congress, which is quite likely given the Republican-leaning district that he’ll run in as the GOP nominee, he may actually continue taking on powerful elites in Washington.”
I, for one, think this could make things very interesting. Also, it could only exacerbate the gridlock on the Hill.
Fang, who has written extensively on campaign finance, corruption and other issues relating to money in politics, also picked up on the lopsided financial aspect of the race. He paints a picture of an incumbent campaign singularly unprepared for a challenger who was able to connect with the (few) voters in the primary:
“There are many lessons to be learned from the Cantor-Brat race. For one, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that not only did Cantor easily out raise and outspend Brat by over $5 million to around $200,000 in campaign funds, but burned through a significant amount on lavish travel and entertainment instead of election advocacy. Federal Election Commission records show Cantor’s PAC spent at least $168,637 on steakhouses, $116,668 on luxury hotels (including a $17,903 charge to the Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows) and nearly a quarter million on airfare (with about $140,000 in chartered flights) — just in the last year and a half!”
The fact that Cantor outspent Brat by a factor of 40-to-1 and still lost by 8% is a very interesting story, but one that not many people have focused on. I do not think it puts to bed the implications of massive spending in campaigns – after all, this is a race for but one of 435 House seats.
Justin Landon, a former Congressional staffer, has written about the potential fallout from Cantor’s loss, suggesting “that this has the chance to be one of the most seminal moments in United States political history. Not because a powerful person lost an election, but because of the enormous eyeglass policy nerd power vacuum left behind.”
Landon doesn’t go into the reasons behind Cantor’s loss, but rather focuses on the potential fallout and the implications. He explains, for example, why the upset could very well lead to an increasingly “nuts”, polarized and dysfunctional Congress. For one thing, there’s the implication that with Cantor’s exit, Boehner’s time as Speaker is severely limited:
“Since John Boehner’s election as Speaker he’s been continually under fire from both the left and right. The right thinks he’s squishy. He cuts deals. He helps the President pass his liberal agenda. From the left, Boehner is the symbol of conservative obstructionism, shutting down the government and attacking the Affordable Care Act. The truth is he’s been both. He’s cut deals when he had the votes and put up a brick wall when he didn’t. Corralling a Republican caucus that has turned over half its members in the last two elections has been no easy task. With demands for absolutist positions and conservative martyrdom, Boehner has only survived thus far thanks to luck and Eric Cantor’s connection to the Congressional leaders of the Tea Party movement. In other words, the next Speaker of the House is probably going to be someone who’s a little nuts.”
Landon also cautions against Democrats and liberals rejoicing at Cantor’s loss:
“In the case of the [left], they may hope it means an end to the Republican majority in the House. Honestly, I wouldn’t hold my breath until after the next census. Regardless of how disassociated the House becomes from the national majority, the country’s Congressional districts are drawn as much to favor the Republican party for at least another half dozen years. Which means, without Eric Cantor and thus John Boehner, we’re in for a long six years of political demagoguery. An already crippled Congress may be slipping into a coma from which we may never wake.”
Brian Beutler, writing for the New Republic, places the blame for Cantor’s loss squarely at the Majority Leader’s feet – “There’s a kernel of truth to the idea that Cantor was a Frankenstein, devoured by his own creation” – and also a “deeper activist disenchantment.” Cantor, he writes, played a tricky politics, sometimes characterized by “too-clever-by-half schemes to seize a momentary advantage, often at the expense of bigger picture goals.” These schemes “frequently blew back at him.” He also cautions against believing immigration policy was the reason, pointing out:
“Because immigration reform played heavily near the end of House Minority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary campaign, and because a number of influential anti-amnesty conservative activists aligned to make an example of him — using the volatility of district-level primaries to their advantage — the media will treat his defeat as evidence that immigration policy is the third rail of Republican politics.”
Beutler also offers this bit of political irony that has arisen from this primary season:
“The great irony of this year’s primary season, and indeed of conservative politics going back years now, is that the two Republican leaders most responsible for the party’s insurgent-like opposition to the Obama agenda — Cantor, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — are the base’s most reviled. McConnell defeated his primary challenger last month, at great expense. Cantor fell short.”
Regardless of what the eventual consensus or proven reason for Brat’s victory, it didn’t take long for articles to appear that started to pick apart his positions and attempt to diminish him.
For example, Huffington Post article by Amanda Terkel has been doing the rounds this afternoon. In this article, Terkel quotes (and embeds) a clip from Chuck Todd’s MSNBC show, in which the host interviews Brat. After first, Brat seemed surprised that Todd would want to talk about political issues, and said “I thought we were just going to chat today about the celebratory aspects.” This could be construed as justifiable surprise, given that the story has very quickly become the fact that his victory and Cantor’s loss is the story, and not really the actual policy issues. Todd asked Brat about the minimum wage, a contemporary issue that has been featured across the media at considerable length and over a long period of time. Not unreasonable to assume that an economics professor with political ambitions might have an answer ready on that issue – either for or against it. Here’s the exchange:
TODD: Should there be a minimum wage in your opinion?
BRAT: I don’t have a well-crafted response on that one. All I know is if you take the long-run graph over 200 years of the wage rate, it cannot differ from your nation’s productivity. Right? So you can’t make up wage rates. Right? I would love for everyone in sub-Saharan Africa, for example -- children of God -- to make $100 an hour. I would love to just assert that that would be the case. But you can’t assert that unless you raise their productivity, and then the wage follows.
It would appear that Brat has already mastered the skill of delivering evasive, empty and garbled answers. An inauspicious start, but shouldn’t be taken as an indication that he doesn’t know anything. That he started with “I don’t have a well-crafted response” was a welcome moment of honesty – it has become anathema, apparently, for politicians (or anyone, really) to ever admit they don’t know something, or are unprepared. That he went on to provide a muddled response tripped him up. A politician’s ability to think and respond on the fly has been eroded by the ever-greater obsession with pre-planned, pre-screened answers and sound-bites. That Brat didn’t just trot out a sound-bite is laudable. His lack of ability to articulate any clear position is disappointing.
With the “historic” first defeat of a member of the Majority Leadership, there’s no doubt that Brat is going to be at the centre of a lot of stories to come. For some, the attention and publicity can prove quite useful and helpful. For others, the fame and political fortune can be fleeting, as their media portraits lead them to overreach (see, for example, Ted Cruz).
Check out the Huffington Post’s Front Page (as of 8:35pm GMT). It would appear that they think this is a fairly big story…
Any interesting coverage I’ve missed? Have an opinion as to why Cantor lost? Feel free to share, below.