Eric Cantor’s loss last night sent shock-waves through the establishments of both parties. Predictably, Democrats painted Cantor’s loss as the inmates running the asylum. Most Republicans remained mum while the Tea Party cheered. There have been a number of reasons offered to explain why Cantor lost; Cantor was too moderate on immigration, ran ineffective campaign ads, had poor internal polling, suffered from a local fight over the state central committee, was too focused on becoming the next speaker, was part of the unpopular Republican leadership, had ineffective constituent service, didn’t spend enough time in the district and wasn’t a good stylistic match for the primary electorate.
All likely contributed to Cantor’s loss to a degree though I suspect the higher turnout worked in the favor of Brat. What makes Cantor’s loss so notable is that he followed the establishment playbook to a tee to avoid an upset. Unlike Dick Lugar (IN) and Bob Bennett (UT) Cantor was not caught off guard. He began airing ads in April and spent almost $5 million in the primary race. Yet somehow Cantor still lost. Might it have to do with the unsettled nature of the GOP electorate?
The Republican electorate is furious with DC. They loathe the President and Democrats but they also distrust their party’s leadership. This distrust of their party leadership did not come from a vacuum. From 1994-2006, voters gave the GOP control of Congress for the longest uninterrupted stretch since the 1920s. Yes, Republicans did create a budget surplus but they did so by cutting the military and increasing taxes. In 2001, with complete control of the Executive and Legislative Branches, Republicans did not shrink but expanded government; No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a new Cabinet department, increased federal spending, TARP, and repeated attempts at immigration reform. Republicans in power had a historic chance to shrink government and they did the opposite, moving the needle leftward on virtual every domestic policy issue. George Bush even tried to put a moderate on the court, Harriet Miers, until the base revolted. In short, Republicans dislike of their leadership has been simmering since Bush and growing ever since.
Republicans who get the fact that the base is mad usually win. In the case of Cantor, a caveat needs to be added. Cantor was probably not deemed to moderate for many primary voters. Rather, it was his direct connection to leadership and his failure to try to distance himself from them that likely cost him votes. Some in the media call this the GOP eating their own and beyond partisan posturing they are not far off. Conservative insurgents who have won upset races (Mike Lee in Utah, Rand Paul in Kentucky, etc.) did so because the GOP base is perfectly willing to throw out incumbents in favor of a purer candidate. I am not saying that this is necessarily the case for Cantor, Brat is not Christine O’Donnell or Richard Murdock, he comes off as a more libertarian minded conservative. But Brat certainly appealed to more Republicans than Cantor.
Most of the analysis of Cantor’s loss has focused on how it is a game-changer and it should worry incumbents about the power of the Tea Party. But keep in mind that outside Tea Party affiliated groups did not get involved in the race. This stands in stark contrast to the Senate race in Mississippi which would be the first major victory for the Tea Party against the establishment this cycle. So it stands to reason that incumbents who take their challenger/s seriously, get key endorsements and spend early to define their small government credentials do well.
Look at numerous examples. In 2010 in Arizona, John McCain took his primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth seriously. He defined Hayworth as a deeply flawed candidate who would enrage the general electorate. By election day voters were looking at McCain as being the better alternative. In 2012, Orrin Hatch, having watched his former colleague, Bob Bennett, be defeated in 2010, worked hard and early to get endorsements, discourage a strong conservative challenge and win over a conservative state convention electorate. This script was followed by Senator Jon Cornyn in Texas this year. He faced a conservative uprising from several contenders but vastly outspent them and curried strong conservative favor. On the same night Cantor lost, Lindsey Graham, the poster-child of moderate (immigration reform and climate change), easily won his primary race with well over 50% by following the tried and true methods of endangered incumbents.
So, devoid of a single key reason on which we can pin Cantor’s loss it might be safer to say this was unique to the district. Certainly, issues such as immigration reform played a large part in the race. But was it the determining factor? That is hard to argue. It seems safer to say that Cantor’s loss was due to a number of factors not likely to be replicated elsewhere. This should relieve incumbent Republicans still waiting on their primaries (Pat Roberts in Kansas most notably) but also give them pause. You can do everything right and still lose. But at least you have a better chance of winning if you do things right.
The upcoming run-off in Mississippi will likely prove this true. Thad Cochran refused to change in any way and campaigned on many things the modern GOP opposes; earmarks and pork. As a result he is likely to be blown out on the 24th by Tea Party endorsed state senator Chris McDaniel. Both Cochran and Cantor can serve as a warning to incumbent Republicans that it is better to be safe than sorry, understand the nature of your primary electorate, and find a way to appeal to them or make your opponent/s less appealing.
Addendum: Helping to put to rest a conspiracy theory that Democrats crossing over in the primary caused Cantor’s loss, Nate Cohn finds that in the most Democratic precincts in the district Cantor actually did better than he did among strongly GOP precincts compared to his 2012 primary results. More likely, increased turnout from 2012 levels doomed Cantor.