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It seems fitting that after such a momentous political evening, the Washington, D.C. area woke early this morning to the thundercrack of a summer storm, with a furious arrival and just as quickly faded and gone. The crushing and unexpected defeat of Eric Cantor – the first defeat of a sitting House Majority leader since 1899, which also happens to be the creation of the position – is sending ripples through a Republican Party which will have ramifications for this cycle and beyond.
In media terms, Cantor’s loss wrecks the established narrative about the nature of this cycle (the establishment either crushes or learns to live with the remnants of the Tea Party); in policy terms, it wrecks the likelihood of immigration reform as anything taken up by Republicans under the Obama presidency; and in political terms, it wrecks the longstanding work of many in the business and donor community who have spent years cultivating relationships with Cantor as the presumptive next Speaker of the House, opening up a new contest for leadership in the party which will serve as a proxy battle over the speakership and the most prominent role on Capitol Hill.
I wish that as a Virginian I could have shared some particular advance insight on the nature of this loss – and indeed, there had been rumblings late last week that Cantor’s challenger, Randolph-Macon economics professor and Princeton Seminary grad David Brat, was keeping things close – but you dismiss such things as noise when contemplating the possibilities of such an historic upset. He has since the beginning of his career been a man motivated by sheer ambition, and it is this double-edged sword which best explains his loss yesterday.
The narrative today was supposed to be amazement at how Lindsey Graham, one of the most patient political survivors in Washington – who worked hard to get where he is, and dedicated his days over the past several years to undermining or compromising his potential challengers – prevailed easily over weak opposition in South Carolina. Instead, Graham’s victory and Cantor’s loss provide a good contrast in the crippling danger of complacency in politics. And that’s becoming the real lesson of the 2014 primary season: good candidates win, bad candidates lose – and the difference is often as simple as recognizing who you represent is not the collection of interests inside the beltway but the people who actually pull the lever back at home.
While Cantor has been gunning for the speakership now for several years, his ladder-climbing ambition leading him to attempt to position himself as all things to all people, he lost sight of the frustrations back home in his “real Virginia” district. Rob Tracinski, who has lived in Virginia’s 7th for two decades, relates this story:
At the Republican Convention in 2008, I approached Cantor after an event, introduced myself as a constituent, and told him where I lived. It’s a tiny place, more of a wide spot in the road than an actual town, so this was partly a test to see how well Cantor knew his own district. I turns out that he did recognize the town, and to prove it, he started to tell me about how he had worked on getting us an earmark for a local Civil War battlefield park. An earmark, mind you, just after Republicans had officially renounced earmarks in an attempt to appease small-government types. Cantor suddenly realized this and literally stopped himself in mid-sentence. Then he hastily added: “But we don’t do that any more.”
The insulating power of money or incumbency is still significant – but Cantor outspent Brat to the tune of more than five million to less than 200k, and it still wasn’t enough. You can see why when you see what Cantor was doing with it – money for consultants, pollsters, travel, steakhouses, and ads like this:
Of course, most people inside the Beltway will view this outcome through the lens of the policy scrum over immigration, where advocates on both sides have done themselves no favors, even to the end:
In the room of downcast Cantor allies, a new energy suddenly erupted — but not the kind they wanted on election night. A group of immigration activists stormed the ballroom, screaming and waving a flag. “What do we want? Immigration reform! When do we want it? Now!” A few Cantor supporters tried to block the protesters’ entrance into the ballroom, and pushing and shoving ensued. And before they reached the microphone, one Cantor supporter threw his glass of wine at a female protester. She swore at him in return.
The more hackish journalists will deploy this as a harbinger of GOP doom in 2016. But I’m unconvinced that in a field without a single prominent immigration hardliner (Ted Cruz, perhaps?) that this is the case.
And immigration policy is just one aspect of this. For years, the impression has been forming in Virginia that Cantor’s priorities were with K Street and the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable – not with the people who actually elect him:
The central theme of Brat’s campaign is that Cantor is beholden to business — specifically the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.
“If you’re in big business, Eric’s been very good to you, and he gets a lot of donations because of that, right?” Brat said at the meeting. “Very powerful. Very good at fundraising because he favors big business. But when you’re favoring artificially big business, someone’s paying the tab for that. Someone’s paying the price for that, and guess who that is? You.”
Cantor’s allies say that is exactly the type of rhetoric that has left the state party struggling for cash.
So immigration mattered, yes – but it was just one piece of that broader narrative, a narrative which painted Cantor as a two-faced power broker whose priorities were elsewhere:
It’s true that Cantor enjoyed a strong relationship with business, especially with Wall Street. The industry that gave him the most campaign contributions was the securities and investment sector. Individuals from the private equity firm Blackstone were his biggest financial supporters. Cantor went to bat for the industry repeatedly over politically unpopular issues, including the taxation of income at private equity firms at the lower capital gains rate.
That’s no surprise: for decades, the GOP and big business have worked closely together to build a political alliance that until recently appeared airtight. But now with Tea Party activist groups charging the traditional wing of the GOP with “crony capitalism”—and Cantor’s loss—the balance of power is creeping away from the pro-business faction of the Republican Party.
After spending so many years framing himself as the all things to all people future of the party, Cantor now serves as a walking cautionary tale for the dangers of ambition which becomes out of touch with the priorities of the people back home. Cantor has used his YG Network in recent months to recast himself as a reform conservative. Along with Mitch McConnell, he’s nodded in the right direction toward Main Street priorities and the like, but the sincerity of such interest was always a question among those who viewed Cantor as an unctuous faux conservative climber. Now it’s a moot point – you can’t chart an agenda if you can’t get re-elected – and Cantor risks becoming the American version of Michael Portillo.
This race was not about the Tea Party – Dave Brat may have been backed by voters sympathetic to the Tea Party, but not by any significant organization, money, or groups. It was instead about the question of whether a politician can serve two masters – big business and the people – and get away with it. The answer is yes, but only if you are very good at politics. Lindsey Graham is. Eric Cantor wasn’t. And that made all the difference.