Eric Cantor, the Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, lost his primary battle to retain his seat to a political newcomer yesterday.
Congressman Cantor, who came into the race with massive campaign funding and the weight of incumbency behind him, lost to Dave Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College. Brat raised the comparatively scanty sum of $200,000 for the race. In contrast, special interest groups poured money into Cantor’s campaign, which spent over $5.4 million. The American Chemistry Council, which represents a group of blue-chip corporations, spent over $300,000 on ads for Cantor by themselves.
It is not often that an incumbent loses. It is also not often when the candidate with the least amount of money — in this case, a great deal less money — wins.
Early news reports seem to be giving the Tea Party movement the credit for Brat’s win. It is reported that Brat campaigned as an outsider running against an insider who, according to Brat, was not conservative enough. The fact that the election was a Republican primary instead of a general election makes that plausible.
Brat used high profile endorsements, such as one by radio personality Laura Ingraham, to counter the money factor in the race. He also campaigned against Cantor’s support for a more moderate position on immigration.
Apparently, the political deep-thinkers in Washington failed to see this coming. According to the New York Times, the only question along the beltway was how high Cantor’s victory margin would be. Congressman Cantor himself seems not to have realized how serious the challenge was until just a short time before the election.
The cherry on top of what must have been a miserable night for Congressman Cantor and his supporters came when a group of pro immigration reform demonstrators burst into the campaign gathering just a few minutes after he had made his concession speech. The irony in that needs no explaining.
What does all this mean in the larger arena?
The deciding factor in the impact this stunning turnover will have on the Republican Party as a whole and, through it, the American political landscape, depends on whether or not it was a fluke or a harbinger. What, if anything, does it say about other races later this year?
Congressman Cantor was so sure that he was going to win that he made the mistake of not taking his opponent seriously. He didn’t get the news that he was in trouble until just a few weeks before the votes were cast. He walked into the punch with his arms at his side. Hubris beat Representative Eric Cantor every bit as much as Dave Brat did.
His colleagues are now forewarned. One certain effect this election is going to have is that no incumbent will make the mistake of ignoring an underfunded, seemingly insignificant opponent. I doubt very much if we see other races like this one where the incumbent just la-la-las his way through the campaign until the last few weeks.
Will that save them? I would guess that it depends on the district and how blatantly the Congressperson has sold out their constituents to special interests, in particular special interests whose program is anathema to the people they represent.
The Republican voters of Virginia just chose a man as their nominee who doesn’t owe the corporatist interests that control their party his soul. In doing so, they tossed out a man who was owned by those interests to the tune of $5.4 million.
Mr Brat’s acceptance speech was a rousing statement of voter empowerment. If he makes it past the Democrat in the fall, a question that will likely be resolved by the configuration of the district, we’ll get a look at who he is in power.
Will he be able to stay the same guy once he meets all his new best friends and gets a taste of the perks, flattery and pressures of actual political office?
I’m sure that the calls from what was surely a rather flummoxed Republican Party began last night as they moved to pick up the pieces and head toward the general election. The other calls, which are forerunners of the full-bore flattery and stroking that will begin if he wins in November, began right along with them.
Will this election result in at least one independent member of Congress who thinks for himself and does not check with special interests before he wipes his political nose? I hope so.
No matter his politics, that would be a refreshing change.