Why Cantor lost

June 11, 2014


House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) delivers his concession speech as his wife, Diana, listens in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Cantor lost in the GOP primary tp tea party candidate Dave Brat. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

In an historic defeat last night, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost his primary election to economics professor David Brat.  The speed analysis last night was excellent, but I think there’s more to be said about the politics and implications of Cantor’s loss.  So a few brief takeaways from last night’s events:

  1. All politics is still local. The strongest lesson from Cantor’s loss comes from Tip O’Neil’s famous adage.  In the eyes of his (redistricted) constituents, Cantor lost touch with his district.  Balancing the demands of national leadership (which ultimately demands compromise) and local representation (which thrives on dogged faith to district interests) is always hard, but especially and obviously so when they conflict.  Legislative scholars typically tag “out of step” legislators as those more partisan than their districts allow. But representation is as much (if not more) about trust as it is about policy detail.  No longer trusting Cantor to capture district policy sentiments or culture, Cantor’s supporters pulled in the long leash that voters typically extend to favored representatives.
  1. The exception proves the rule.  Cantor is just the second incumbent lawmaker this season to lose his primary.  We rarely see successful primary threats not because incumbents are universally loved, but because most lawmakers’ political antennae (and those of their staff) are finely attuned to trouble back home. Cantor ultimately figured this out—blasting $5 million into his district in the final weeks.  But the money in this case was perhaps too much and too late: attack ads against college professors are no substitute for the hard work of repairing fractured relations back home.
  1. Beware populist fury. David Brat is the rare GOP challenger after 2010 who has succeeded in channeling GOP furor about their party and its establishment roots.  Cantor’s loss strikes me as less a statement about GOP disagreement about immigration reform and more an illustration of right wing populist dissent within the GOP.  Brat deemed Cantor out of touch with Virginia’s main streets and far too in touch with Wall Street—charging for example that Cantor diluted the STOCK Act limiting lawmakers to do the bidding of allies on K Street and Wall Street.  The fault lines that emerged over the Wall Street bailout in late 2008 continue to roil American politics.

Cantor’s defeat is already having explosive consequences within the House GOP conference: the future makeup and tenor of its leadership has been upended.  But I would caution against concluding that Cantor’s loss has created new divisions within the fractious conference.  Cantor’s loss has certainly scrambled the leadership structure, but governing the House GOP conference was always going to be difficult, regardless of who struggled to lead it.  Still, any recent steps towards a more functional House probably took a step backwards last night.

Sarah Binder is a professor of political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has authored or co-authored four books on legislative politics, and she has a mild obsession with congressional rules, the history of Congress, and the Fed.
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Daniel Maliniak and Ryan Powers · June 11, 2014