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Why Cantor Lost

As Scott Galupo and Noah Millman have already noted, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his primary race last night by a wide margin. Cantor is the first majority leader to lose his seat to a primary challenger. Immigration was evidently the most important issue that helped drag Cantor down, but that wasn’t all. Criticism of NSA surveillance and an economic populist attack on corporations were also important parts of Brat’s campaign. These are all issues that split the GOP. The division is between those that want the party to continue aligning itself with corporate interests and the national security state and those that recoil from one or both of these. Cantor was on the wrong side of all of them, and it caught up with him. Nothing could be healthier for a party than to remind its leaders that they are accountable to their constituents and can be voted out no matter how powerful their position happens to be.

Greg Sargent picks up on a report from the Times-Dispatch that identifies some of the other reasons for the defeat:

Cantor’s maneuvering on immigration was illustrative of a larger issue: a perception within Republican circles that Cantor, in his determination to succeed John Boehner as speaker, seemed more interested in positioning for the next phase of the nonstop news cycle than embracing a distinct agenda.

Further, Cantor — a self-styled Young Gun, who along with Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, was a symbol of Yuppie Republicanism — became a distant figure to many of his Virginia constituents, seen only on Sunday talk shows and in the pages of national newspapers [bold mine-DL].

Cantor’s priority was traveling the country, raising money from corporate and financial leaders. The torrent of Cantor-generated cash would shore up a smaller but more influential constituency for the often-aloof lawyer: a handful of conservatives within the Republican caucus who would decide the speakership.

The backlash over immigration shows something else, which is the extent to which Republican voters have come to distrust their party leaders and the reason for that distrust. Cantor predictably said that he was against an immigration amnesty bill, but the problem for him was that large numbers of his constituents simply didn’t think he would do what he said. It is understandable that Republican voters would be especially wary of the promises from their leaders on immigration. Party leaders have repeatedly tried to ignore what the voters want on this issue, and many of them have made no secret of their desire to take immigration “off the table” before the next election, and in practical terms that means giving in to at least some of what the administration wants. Add to this Cantor’s focus on his own political aspirations and his perceived neglect of his constituents, and you have a recipe for electoral defeat. On top of everything else, Cantor’s challenger, Randolph-Macon professor Dave Brat, took advantage of Cantor’s superior fundraising by using Cantor’s support from major banks against him. This is a story of an out-of-touch leader mishandling a discontented electorate and assuming that he could take his re-nomination for granted, only to discover to everyone’s surprise that the voters won’t cooperate with his plans.

The 7th District is rated as R+10 according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, so it is likely that Brat will go on to win in November.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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