Looking Back at the Tea Leaves on Cantor

by John Fund

Eric Cantor’s loss is historic. No sitting House majority leader has lost an election since the office was created in 1899. While Cantor’s loss was a stunning surprise, the warning signals were around for a while: 

1. Cantor managed to muddle his message on immigration. His direct-mail pieces claimed he was foursquare against amnesty. But the newspapers covering Washington, D.C., quoted him as saying he was seeking a compromise with President Obama on immigration. Voters resolved the seeming contradiction by deciding to vote out their establishment congressman. Cantor’s loss destroys any chance of a comprehensive immigration bill passing the House this year.

2. The majority leader outspent his opponent, David Brat, by $5 million to $120,000. Much of that money went to negative ads against Brat that turned off voters and were so vitriolic as not to be credible.

3. Cantor was also hurt by a subterranean campaign by Democrats to convince their supporters to vote in the Republican primary against Cantor. Apparently, some of them did.

4. Many constituents of Eric Cantor felt he had ignored them for years, rarely returning home and often ignoring them on key issues ranging from expanding Medicare prescription-drug benefits to TARP bank bailouts. The frustration boiled over at a May party meeting in his district, where Cantor was booed and his ally was ousted from his post as local party chair by a tea-party insurgent. “He did one thing in Washington and then tried to confuse us as to what he did when he came back to his district,” one Republican primary voter told me.

And, looking forward:

5. In theory, Cantor could run as a write-in candidate in the November election, but that is highly unlikely. A divided GOP vote could elect a Democrat in a district where President Obama won 43 percent of the vote in 2012.

6. The House Republican Caucus has experienced an earthquake. Regardless of John Boehner’s decision on whether to remaining speaker, there will now be a new majority leader. Early contenders for the post are House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan. Both men are more conservative at their core than Cantor, who often made colleagues think he was a conservative of convenience rather than conviction.

Primaries are often criticized for low voter turnout. But they are also expressions of the grassroots sentiments of political parties. The lesson tonight is that establishment candidates ignore their most ardent voters at their peril. As political analyst Stuart Rothenberg put it tonight: “The GOP establishment’s problem isn’t with the Tea Party. It’s with Republican voters.”

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