Politicos were shocked Tuesday night when Eric Cantor became the first House majority leader in U.S. history to lose in a primary. The Virginia Republican fell to underdog college professor David Brat by 12 points in an astounding upset despite spending more than $5 million compared to Brat’s less than $200,000. Within 24 hours Cantor revealed he will resign as majority leader on July 31.
The big question that lawmakers and political analysts are puzzling over is: how did Virginia’s most powerful politician sabotage his position so badly? While no single factor sticks out, a variety of dynamics — both national and local — appear to have damaged the majority leader.
One explanation embraced by both tea party advocates and Republican establishment figures alike is that Cantor took his district for granted and put more emphasis on raising his national profile than serving his constituents.
“Cantor lost his race because he was running for Speaker of the House of Representatives while his constituents wanted a congressman,” wrote RedState.com editor Erick Erickson in an op-ed for Fox News, chalking up the loss to “Cantor’s hubris and the arrogance of his top staffers. He could not be touched and he could not be defeated. He knew it and they knew it.”
A former House GOP leadership aide (who didn’t work for Cantor) had a similar take.
“He lost because he spent more time galavanting around the country, raising his profile for Speaker/potential VP nominee than tending to the folks in his district,” said the aide, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “He wears Prada shoes with lifts and regularly attends Davos. None of those things make him a bad man, but they do make him an absentee representative for the people of his district.”
Local politics played a role. Cantor’s standing had visibly diminished among conservative activists in Virginia. One warning sign came last month when Republicans in Henrico County, Cantor’s home turf, ousted one of the majority leader’s close allies for GOP county chairman. Later that month, Cantor was booed and heckled by conservatives at a rally in his Richmond-area district. In retrospect these factors appear to have been more potent than many expected; few predicted they foreshadowed Cantor’s impending doom.
The right’s turn against Cantor can be understood in part by the majority leader’s transformation in recent years. During President Barack Obama’s first term, he channeled the tea party’s primal instincts, utilizing its energy to lead total obstruction of the president’s agenda and, in 2011, encouraging dangerous brinkmanship over government funding and the debt limit. Then the political landscape changed, and Cantor changed with it. The majority leader reinvented himself in 2012, veering away from all-out obstruction and instead cutting deals to pass small bills (like the Jobs Act and Gabriella Miller Kids First Act), laying out his “making life work” agenda and embracing legal status for undocumented youth, and making minor compromises to keep the government open and prevent economically harmful disruptions to domestic programs.
Cantor 2.0 wasn’t well-perceived by the far-right. Although tea party financiers like the Club For Growth steered clear of the race, Brat won the backing of popular right-wing talk radio hosts like Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham who painted Cantor as an amnesty-loving Wall Street lackey who refused to dance with the ones that brought him or stand up to the president.
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), who recently trounced his GOP primary opponents, told TPM on Wednesday that Cantor’s loss was “unique to the circumstances of that congressional district.” He sympathized with the “difficulties” of balancing national leadership roles with the expectations of constituents.
“If you’re well prepared and run a good campaign, you can win as an incumbent,” Cornyn said, citing the primary victory of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Tuesday night. “But there’s no question that there’s an anti-incumbent mood out there.”
At the end of the day, strategists stress that all politics is local. Cantor’s district was redrawn to become more conservative following the 2010 GOP sweep; at first the move seemed to fortify the majority leader, but now it appears to have backfired. In addition, Cantor — like many political observers — underestimated both his weaknesses and the strengths of Brat, who positioned himself as a right-wing, anti-government populist and hit the right notes in the district.
“I don’t think [Cantor’s] people took the race seriously enough, and I certainly don’t think he had the right strategy to win it,” said John Feehery, a former aide to Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “He spent 5 million on his race (or something like that). I really don’t know what happened, but what a disaster.”
The result Tuesday night startled even those who work closely with Cantor.
“I was extremely surprised,” said an aide to Speaker John Boehner.