Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Eric Cantor Loses Primary! 10 Takeaways …

In a stunning defeat that pundits and politicians across America are still trying to reconcile, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) was ousted in the Republican primaries by little known economics professor, Dave Brat, who lambasted the GOP leader for his “soft” stance on immigration reform throughout the campaign (NYT). To put the loss in context, Cantor’s pollsters had him up by between 25 and 32 points, he outspent his opponent by 20 to 1 and he was the first incumbent majority leader to lose their seat in Congress since 1899, when the post was first created! The stunning defeat should be contextual though, recognizing that it was based on the decision of 65,000 registered voters (12 percent of the total in Virginia’s 7th district) in a non-Presidential election cycle. Yet the historic victory does demand some early analysis of what it might mean. Some thoughts (culled after reading a number of articles including this excellent one from Bill Moyers):

1.    Little guys can win elections against Fat Cat politicians, if the circumstances are ripe for change – meaning money doesn’t always bring victory (though it does MOST OF THE TIME). On the other hand, this appears to be a victory for anti-immigrant reactionaries who wanted the district to go even further right and were angry at Cantor for a number of real and perceived slights.
2.    As with the Romney campaign two years ago, GOP pollsters are not terribly good at their jobs these days. Many in the Romney camp woke up on Election Day almost certain of victory, only to find that their numbers were way off in the most important swing states.
3.    Cantor paid for his dismissive approach to GOP activists. Ben Jacobs at the Daily Beast explained, “One Virginia Republican familiar with the race suggested that Cantor’s loss was due to “a perfect storm” brought about by the fact that Cantor seemed to be schooled in “the George Armstrong Custer school of tactics as opposed to Sung Tzu school.” The Republican suggested that while immigration was a factor, the bigger issues were internal party politics. As opposed to other Virginia Republicans in Congress, Cantor didn’t show the most basic respect to Tea Partiers in his district. It wasn’t about Cantor’s votes but rather that he didn’t even show up to explain himself and get yelled at…Cantor also exacerbated things by failing at attempts to play internal politics within the Republican Party of Virginia. In May, his candidate to run the congressional convention in his district, Linwood Cobb, was defeated solely because he was supported by Cantor. Grassroots Republicans resented that the House majority leader was trying to “launch a boneheaded frontal assault” on the state party to take control of it. The result meant was that “run of the mill Paul Ryan Republicans” were just as furious with Cantor as Tea Partiers were. In a straw poll taken at that the convention, Brat was the favorite of attendees, but so was the establishment choice for the Senate nomination, Ed Gillespie.”
4.    On the question of Immigration Reform, while the cause of death might be exaggerated here, it does appear to indicate that it is a poison chalice that any sensible Republican will avoid like the plague. While, Seung Min Kim reported for Politico that a new poll by Public Policy Polling found that registered Republicans in the 7th District favored comprehensive immigration reform by a 70-27 margin, the pollsters claim that immigration didn’t tilt the race toward Brat. In fact, the PPP poll explained the provisions of comprehensive reform before asking the question, and that always generates higher support than surveys which simply ask people’s views of “immigration reform.” On the other hand, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) – a long-time target of the Tea Party, won handily.
5.    Too Negative Can Hurt: as Romney learned, and Karl Rove is reinforcing along with the Cantor people, going negative on the edges of The National Inquire and Weekly World News is not necessarily the way to win elections. David Marx at Politix believed that it wasn’t Cantor’s position on the issue as much as it was his messaging that cost him the election: “Cantor’s defeat offers another lesson — how not to run a negative campaign. In trying to stave off Brat’s challenge from the right, Cantor’s campaign threw out a bunch of ludicrous charges that only backfired.” Rare Editor Jeremy Lott – one of the few political analysts to detect the majority’s leader’s electoral troubles in advance — wrote before the votes were counted about desperate tactics by Cantor’s minions that were likely to backfire: “Cantor and allies have run anti-Brat television ads, sent out fliers, blanketed the radio waves. The Cantorites have called the tea party-favored Brat a ‘liberal college professor’ and accused him, falsely, of backing amnesty for illegal immigrants. (Which, given Cantor’s slipperiness on the subject, takes chutzpah.)” That broke a cardinal rule of negative campaigning — make your charges credible. One of Brat’s main issues was opposing the type of immigration reform sought by House Democrats.
6.    Ambition Doesn’t Always Play Well: Cantor clearly had bigger ambitions that his Congressional seat for the future and some constituents see that along the same lines as those following a local band that hits it big. “In other words, if that guy is looking out for number one, who the hell is looking out for me?” Jeff Shapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispath arued that there was “a perception within the Republican cricles that Cantor, in his determination to succeed John Boehner as Speaker, seemed more interested in positioning for the next phase of the nonstop news cycle than embracing a district agenda.”
7.    Tea Party Back in Play? After the last election cycle, many on the right complained about the negative impact of right-wing candidates taking the place of more viable alternatives in a number of key Senatorial races. Since then, the backlash has continued, though not unchallenged by the far right. But a victory like this is galvanizing the Tea Party to dream again of influencing national politics in a serious way, at least according to the Washington Post. And it certainly didn’t hurt Brat that he had Tea Party champions Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter on his side. Jim Newell at Salon points out that most of the Tea Baggers now celebrating were nowhere to be found when Brat ran his campaign, but taking credit for a victory you had nothing to no with is part of the American Dream, isn’t it?
8.    It appears economic populism played a much bigger role than the mainstream media has reported (what a surprise!). At Republic Report, Lee Fang wrote, “Brat told Internet radio host Flint Engelman that the “number one plank” in his campaign is ‘free markets.’ Brat went on to explain, ‘Eric Cantor and the Republican leadership do not know what a free market is at all, and the clearest evidence of that is the financial crisis … When I say free markets, I mean no favoritism to K Street lobbyists.’ Banks like Goldman Sachs were not fined for their role in the financial crisis — rather, they were rewarded with bailouts, Brat has said. Brat…spent much of the campaign slamming both parties for being in the pocket of “Wall Street crooks” and D.C. insiders. The folks who caused the financial crisis, Brat says, ‘went onto Obama’s rolodex, the Republican leadership, Eric’s rolodex.’ During several campaign appearances, Brat says what upset him the most about Cantor was his role in gutting the last attempt at congressional ethics reform.”
9.    GOP Can’t Control Their Fringe: many claim that Brat was simply running to make a point, but some of his positions beyond his anti-immigration stance should be combed over. For example, he wrote in 2011 that Hitler’s rise “could all happen again, quite easily.” With GOP candidates and representatives claiming that rape is sometimes justified, that evolution is just a theory, that global warming is a scam, that teachers should carry guns in class, that they are selling votes for money, and a host of other outlandish claims, the more serious members of the party will have to tow the careful line between alienating these wing nuts and sounding like lunatic themselves. This leads to the final takeaway …
10. Flip-Flopping is Still Verboten in American Politics: Slate's generally excellent political analyst, Jacob Weisberg, makes this very point arguing that the real reason Cantor lost is because he tried to pander to the Tea Party and its discontents at the same time. That sort of Janus-faced approach just doesn’t play well in American politics – except among conservatives who soften once they win their primaries (though even this has been a difficult road to navigate in recent elections). The reality is that I would prefer representatives who flip-flop on issues as circumstances or popular opinion changes, thus representing our interests, but the American public appears to have an undying faith in fundamentalist adherence to one’s ideologies and policy perspectives, no matter what. 

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