Recent seismic events on the political right — the loss by House majority leader Eric Cantor in Tuesday’s Virginia primary, and longtime Mississippi senator Thad Cochran’s being forced into a runoff last week — point to a little-noticed pattern with significant implications for the fall.
In Virginia, challenger Dave Brat had signed the Obamacare Repeal Pledge, while Cantor had not. Similarly, in Mississippi, the underfunded challenger, Chris McDaniel, signed the Repeal Pledge, while Cochran did not.
Savvy primary voters understood that all GOP candidates would criticize the detested Obamacare law, but they were looking for candidates committed to actually working towards repealing and replacing it. The Repeal Pledge was established in the summer of 2010 for just that purpose. It is designed to attest to the seriousness of the signer’s understanding that the Affordable Care Act is so fundamentally and structurally flawed that it cannot be fixed. Instead, it needs to be delayed, defunded, and prevented from metastasizing until it can be repealed and replaced with positive, patient-centered reforms.
Failure to sign the Repeal Pledge played into the larger perception that the incumbents weren’t serious about taking on Obamacare. Many conservatives blamed Cantor for omitting the word “repeal” from his health-care rhetoric, and for being part of a leadership team that wouldn’t allow a vote on the DeSantis bill to repeal the special exemption Congress enjoys from Obamacare.
Senator Cochran was even more nakedly squishy on Obamacare: Not only did he fail to sign the Repeal Pledge, he actually used the special congressional exemption, and on the weekend before his primary election, he was quoted in the Washington Post speaking favorably of the law.
Primary contests in Kentucky and South Carolina confirm this trend. Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell signed the Repeal Pledge and prevailed. Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, did not sign, but neither did any of his opponents, preventing it from becoming an issue. Moreover, Senator Graham has become a visible and vocal supporter of efforts to repeal Congress’s special Obamacare exemption.
Poll after poll shows that repealing Obamacare is a key priority of the Republican base, and smart challengers see this as an opportunity. Brat used the special-exemption issue against Cantor. Brat brought it up himself in an interview session with Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund when one of us met with him to consider an endorsement. Though TPPCF did not endorse him formally, its affiliated 501(c)(4) organization, Tea Party Patriots, had trained many of the local grassroots activists who ultimately fueled his campaign and were pleased to hear that he was using Cantor’s weak position on Obamacare against him.
TPP had already targeted the majority leader’s district office for grassroots pressure last summer during its Defund Obamacare tour, and those efforts — combined with several grassroots training sessions conducted in the district over the last two years — helped create the environment in which a tightly focused underdog campaign could succeed.
None of this is to say that Cantor lost because he failed to sign the Repeal Pledge or bring the DeSantis bill to the floor. But these things certainly helped the challenger make the case that the majority leader was out of touch and wasn’t serving the needs and desires of his constituents.
Washington incumbents should not underestimate the downright anger at the grassroots level over what the base perceives as a sense of entitlement among the current House GOP leadership, and the profound disappointment that the majority they worked so hard to create four years ago has not been able to deliver on their priorities.
Whether that sense of anger and disappointment is deserved is irrelevant. A clinical reading of the election results leads to the inescapable conclusion that it does, in fact, exist and must be taken into account as Republicans head into November.
There is still time for Washington Republicans to bolster their credibility with the base. The grassroots can understand why the Senate has failed to vote to eliminate Congress’s Obamacare exemption — Harry Reid controls the voting schedule there — but they cannot understand why they can’t get a vote in the Republican-controlled House.
Republicans should note that smart Democrats recognize the salience of the special-exemption issue. Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn in Georgia has used the congressional exemption in a very effective TV spot against her Republican challengers, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already run robocalls against eleven targeted GOP members, with more certain to come.
Conservative activists wonder why Republicans continue to let this issue be used against their own team, when it would be so easy to turn the tables and use it against the Democrats. Challengers like Brat and McDaniel have an answer: Incumbent Republicans like the perks of office and aren’t sufficiently committed to our cause.
Republicans serious about winning in 2014 would be well served to prove otherwise as soon as possible. Take the Repeal Pledge, and let leadership know that it’s time to vote on ending Congress’s special Obamacare exemption. If establishment Republicans want to do better, they need to show that they stand with the voters, not just with Washington.
— Heather Higgins is president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice, which created the Repeal Pledge. Jenny Beth Martin chairs Tea Party Patriots Citizen’s Fund and is co-founder and president of Tea Party Patriots.