Here’s all you need to know about Eric Cantor’s stunning loss in the Republican primary for Virginia’s seventh congressional district.
For almost as long as I’ve lived here, which is coming up on 20 years now, the purpose of the seventh district has been to re-elect Eric Cantor every two years. It’s a strongly Republican district that spans across a very conservative stretch of rural Central Virginia, from the Richmond suburbs to Culpeper. So what were we going to do, vote for a Democrat? No, we were going to vote for Cantor.
And Cantor knew it. Because he didn’t have to worry too much about getting re-elected every two years, his political ambition was channeled into rising through the hierarchy of the House leadership. Rise he did, all the way up to the #2 spot, and he was waiting in the wings to become Speaker of the House.
The result was that Cantor’s real constituency wasn’t the folks back home. His constituency was the Republican leadership and the Republican establishment. That’s who he really answered to.
Guess what? Folks in the seventh district figured that out.
The Republican primary is not a date that is all that well known here, and speaking for myself, there was only one reason I noticed it this year and thought that hey, we should go vote. It was not because I thought challenger Dave Brat was going to win. It was because I thought that he might do well, posting a result somewhere up in the mid-40s, and this might put a little fear into Eric Cantor and maybe even get the notice of the rest of the Republican leadership.
It turns out that a lot of other people felt the same. Enough to give Brat 55% of the vote as a pure protest against the establishment.
This wasn’t primarily about Dave Brat. A few people have run primary campaigns against Cantor in the last few years, but they were generally the kind of guys who were running a forklift the day before. I love the ideal of the citizen-legislator, and more power to ’em, but those guys just didn’t have the wherewithal to get noticed. Brat was the first challenger who had a well-organized campaign, and as a pro-free-market economics professor, he’s the kind of guy who can stand up at a local political meeting and talk intelligently and convincingly about public policy. In short, he was a credible alternative in a district that was really looking for one.
Similarly, this wasn’t about any one issue, though Brat’s opposition to Cantor on immigration helped energize some fanatical supporters, which is important in a contest where the overall vote total is not very big. But this is less about two candidates with opposing principles than it is about candidates with opposing attitudes toward the very concept of “principle.”
Here’s my favorite Eric Cantor story. At the Republican Convention in 2008, I approached Cantor after an event, introduced myself as a constituent, and told him where I lived. It’s a tiny place, more of a wide spot in the road than an actual town, so this was partly a test to see how well Cantor knew his own district. I turns out that he did recognize the town, and to prove it, he started to tell me about how he had worked on getting us an earmark for a local Civil War battlefield park. An earmark, mind you, just after Republicans had officially renounced earmarks in an attempt to appease small-government types. Cantor suddenly realized this and literally stopped himself in mid-sentence. Then he hastily added: “But we don’t do that any more.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, was Eric Cantor: the soul of an establishment machine politician, with the “messaging” of the small-government conservatives grafted uneasily on top of it.
So yes, you can now tear up all those articles pronouncing the death of the Tea Party movement, because this is the essence of what the Tea Party is about: letting the establishment know that they have to do more than offer lip service to a small-government agenda, that we expect them to actually mean it. Or as Dave Brat put it in one of his frenzied post-victory interviews, “the problem with the Republican principles is that nobody follows them.”
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