You know what they say: “You can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.” Eric Cantor learned that the hard way.
On primary day, June 10, while still in Washington, he picked up The Hill newspaper and read the front-page story: “Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., are cruising to primary victories Tuesday after fighting tea party challengers every inch of the way.” Thus assured of victory, Cantor strolled up to Starbucks at 3rd and Pennsylvania Ave. S.E. and, as part of his ongoing campaign to run for speaker of the House, sat down for a fundraiser with a group of lobbyists.
Cantor should have headed home to Richmond, instead. That same evening, in one of the biggest upsets since Harry Truman “lost” to Thomas Dewey, Cantor was crushed in the Republican primary by unknown tea-party challenger David Brat, 56 percent to 44 percent. The next day, Cantor resigned as House majority leader.
On the books, it was hardly a fair contest. With no support from the Koch Brothers or other national right-wing organizations, according to the latest campaign finance report, Brat raised $206,663 and spent a total of $122,793. Cantor spent more than that – $168,000 – on steakhouse dinners. With the support of 377 PACs, Cantor ended up outspending Brat 26 to 1, shelling out $5,026,626.
Armed with all that money, Cantor flooded the airwaves with campaign commercials and hired a full platoon of campaign consultants, including pollster John McLaughlin, who, days before the primary, released an internal survey showing Cantor winning by 34 points. Since Brat ended up winning by 11 points, that’s a 45-point error. Amazing what talent and money can’t buy. Brat, meanwhile, muddled through with inexperienced campaign manager Zachary Werrell, who graduated from college last year and recently celebrated his 23rd birthday.
So what happened? Most commentators blamed Cantor’s loss on the fact that he was too “moderate” on immigration, which is a joke. Cantor’s no “moderate” on anything. He’s one of the most conservative members of the House. He’s the front man for the tea party in House leadership. He’s the reason there have been no House votes on immigration reform, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, climate change, student loans, or anything else President Obama wants. At best, Cantor only expressed an openness to “consider” some path to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers,” immigrants brought here as young children by their parents.
In fact, even in southern Virginia, immigration’s not necessarily such a losing issue. In results of a survey by Public Policy Polling taken on Election Day, 72 percent of voters in Cantor’s district support bipartisan immigration reform; only 23 percent oppose. And a whopping 84 percent of voters, including 58 percent of Republicans, say it’s important to fix our broken immigration system this year.
What brought Cantor down was a combination of factors – low voter turnout, for one. Only 8 percent of voters showed up – but they were the 8 percent who are dead-set against any kind of immigration reform. Cantor was seen as having contracted a bad case of “Potomac Fever,” more interested in running for speaker than running for re-election. He lost touch with his constituents, spending more time on Wall Street and in the Hamptons than in his district. He also has a reputation for being smug and arrogant, to the point where one House member told me there’d be no tears shed for Cantor, not even among his Republican colleagues.
But what mainly did him in was: As majority leader, Cantor was part of the establishment Republican Party. And no establishment Republican today, no matter how conservative, is conservative enough for the tea party. They’ve already drummed any moderates out of the Republican Party. Now they’ve set their sights on conservatives. Yes, the tea party is still very much alive. It’s not winning all its battles. See Kentucky. But it’s winning some big ones. See Mississippi and Virginia.
So, what’s it all mean? For President Obama, it’s bad news. Chances of getting anything through Congress this year, already slim, are now impossible. For Republicans, it’s worse news. As Rep. Peter T. King bemoaned, “The results tonight will move the party further to the right, which will marginalize us further as a national party.” Which is why, for Democrats, it is good news: exposing the Republican Party as more and more extreme, and out of touch with mainstream Americans. Ironically, results of a Republican primary in Virginia suddenly boost Democrats’ chances of holding onto the White House in 2016.