On the night Eric Cantor lost to David Brat in the Republican primary in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, Twitter was “atwitter” with the fact that Cantor had spent more in steakhouses during the campaign than Brat had spent total.
This served to reinforce the narrative that Cantor was in all those steakhouses fat-catting with his campaign staff while Brat’s hungry advisers were pounding the pavement. But what Cantor really was doing in those steakhouses more accurately explains his loss. He was raising funds – and helping others to raise funds – for fellow Republicans throughout the House of Representatives.
He made time for big-dollar private fundraisers to curry favor with other members of Congress, but he did not make time for constituent service. He walked the halls of power instead of the streets of his suburban Richmond district. His approach to Brat was to caricature him as an extremist one-issue candidate with scurrilous friends and little idea of what he would do if elected when his constituents wanted to hear what he planned to do to better serve their interests.
And after all, he was the House majority leader. He not only could direct legislation to help his district and state, he could lean on appropriators – many of whose campaigns he had helped fund – to get things done. But it turns out having your congressman in a leadership position doesn’t have the appeal it used to.
The easy analysis is that Cantor’s loss means immigration reform is dead. It already was dead this year, owing both to earlier attempts by Cantor to tack rightward and to resistance by other House members to tackle a tough issue in what should be a Republican year at the polls.
Moreover, the same night, Lindsey Graham, as pro-immigration-reform and non-tea party-aligned a Republican as there is in Congress, fended off six challengers for his party’s nomination in South Carolina. And, as U.S. News’ Lara Brown, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, pointed out, 70 percent of Cantor’s district was with him on immigration.
It was surprising Cantor went down, but it did not happen for surprising reasons. Sean Trende wrote in Real Clear Politics that he lived in Cantor’s district for six years. He rarely saw Cantor walking in the parades that passed Trende’s house or mixing with constituents at community events. He wrote Cantor a letter once asking what a piece of legislation would mean for autism funding his child depends on. No response. Not even the perfunctory “we’ll look into it.”
Brown noted that Brat did outreach the old-fashioned way, with shoe leather and phone calls. And his efforts were rewarded. The primary attracted 65,000 voters this time, up 28,000 from 2012. And those voters were not so much angry over any particular issue as opposed to Washington itself and the inside dealing, power grabbing and intransigence that turns off so many to politics. Cantor epitomized this with his $5 million war chest, his dismissive advertising, his time in those steakhouses focusing on other campaigns and other districts at the expense of his own.
By contrast, Brat, with his populist message, relentless optimism, friends in high talk radio places and $231,000 war chest was the ultimate outsider.
The other narrative – laid out by Donna Brazile – is that Cantor’s loss means tea party radicals have taken over the Republican Party. God help us, she said, if Cantor is not “extreme enough” for these voters.
But the fact is Republicans – at least since the time of Ronald Reagan – have been uniformly more conservative than where Cantor seemed to want to take them. The voters of his district didn’t do anything more revolutionary than rebalance the scales and elect a candidate more in line with their traditional – yes, traditional – conservative views.
They did not like it when Cantor shut down the shutdown last fall, when victory seemed possible and pressure to cave decidedly lacking. They opposed his go-along-with-Democratic-power-to-get-along votes to raise the debt ceiling and for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. They thought he had whiffed on several opportunities to truly shrink government in Washington, and they began to perceive him as a business-as-usual Washington insider who had grown distant from them in ideas, philosophy and energy.
His demeanor during the campaign didn’t help. His bitterly negative ads against Brat seemed to elevate the challenger in what should have been a lopsided election. He picked high-profile fights with conservative activists and otherwise enraged the grassroots. In short, he didn’t tend to the business of staying in Congress, which, first and foremost, is connecting with constituents.
If Cantor had recognized the target on his back; if he had not become so engulfed in the D.C. power scene; if he had strengthened his personal appeal back home and taken his opponent and campaign more seriously, he still would be majority leader and odds-on favorite to succeed John Boehner as speaker one day.
That may sound like a lot of ifs, but it’s not. It’s what members of Congress know they have to do to stay in office. He thought he was bigger than that; but no one is.