Is Claudia Tenney the Next David Brat?

by John Fund
A GOP congressman with “Cantor characteristics” faces a primary challenge.

Last week’s shocking defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor at the hands of political neophyte David Brat left the political world embarrassed that so few of its denizens saw the result coming. Now political observers are looking for other races that could see incumbents upset. Next Tuesday, Mississippi GOP senator Thad Cochran, a 76-year-old aficionado of pork-barrel politics, may fall to another insurgent populist in his GOP-primary runoff. But that wouldn’t be much of a surprise, since Cochran came in second in the first primary round.

If there is to be another David Brat–style upset, the most fertile political ground is likely to be in economically struggling upstate New York, around the Utica area. There two-term GOP congressman Richard Hanna faces a primary challenge next Tuesday from Claudia Tenney, a conservative Republican assemblywoman, who says the district needs more principled representation.

Hanna’s approach to his campaign bears some resemblance to that of Eric Cantor. Like Cantor, he has largely avoided town-hall meetings and direct contact with voters, opting instead to allow outside political-action committees to bombard the airwaves with $1 million in commercials misleadingly labeling his opponent as a liberal. Those kinds of tactics alienated many of the voters in Cantor’s district, and Tenney thinks they will also ultimately work to her benefit. Phil Klinkner, a professor at Hamilton College, told the Utica Observer-Dispatch that “the Cantor results have to worry the Hanna folks.” He noted that “they wouldn’t be spending [the money on ads] unless they really thought they had a challenge.”

Hanna has also had a rocky relationship with the Tea Party, much like Cantor had. In his 2012 reelection race he attacked the Tea Party for extremism, calling them incapable of governing. While Hanna is conservative on issues such as term limits and business regulation, his overall record is disappointingly moderate. He earned a score of only 48 out of 100 from the American Conservative Union in 2013, and his lifetime score is an anemic 51.

In 2013, after President Obama’s reelection, Hanna sought to compromise with the president, saying after Obama laid out his agenda in his 2013 State of the Union message that he “agreed with much of it.” Although opposed to Obamacare, Hanna was one of only two Republicans to vote against delaying its implementation for a year in 2013, and he was the only House Republican to oppose a ban on federal payments to subsidize abortion. In 2012 he actually told a rally of liberal feminists and their supporters: “I think these are very precarious times for women, it seems. So many of your rights are under assault. I’ll tell you this: Contribute your money to people who speak out on your behalf, because the other side — my side — has a lot of it. And you need to send your own message. You need to remind people that you vote, you matter, and that they can’t succeed without your help.”

Hanna supporters dismiss any thought that the incumbent is vulnerable. They tout a poll showing him well ahead, but the poll was taken by the same firm that got the Cantor race spectacularly wrong. Hanna allies also note that their man beat a tea-party challenger with 71 percent of the vote in the 2012 GOP primary. But that is precisely the margin by which Eric Cantor dispatched a tea-party challenger that same year. This year, he ran into a political buzz saw and lost.

Tenney, a small-businesswoman who was first elected to the assembly in 2010, says she can pull off the same kind of political upset. She is popular with pro-life activists and scored a 96 percent rating on the New York Conservative party’s scorecard last year. She has won plaudits for her personal and political grit. She raised her son as a single mom and is proud of the fact that he recently joined the Marines. She says that local Democrats are sufficiently happy with Hanna that they failed to even get a candidate on the ballot against him this fall. So whoever wins the Republican primary next Tuesday will likely be elected. Tenney also says she can hold the seat in future years, noting that both John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 won the district — one of the few congressional districts in New York that Obama didn’t win.

Tenney says that the stunning loss of Eric Cantor should wake up the Republican establishment to the fact that they risk alienating their base if they don’t “stand up for core principles — less government and lower taxes.” But she also notes that the lesson of David Brat’s victory is that he was able to win only because he had the outside support of groups ranging from talk-show hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin to the Breitbart news site. “This race is an opportunity to shake up the establishment a second time this month, but I need all the help I can get,” she told me.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO and co-author of the recently released Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department.