House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat highlights an under-reported aspect of the “tea party.” A smart conservative e-mailed me today about the largely Beltway groups that have branded themselves as “tea party” organizations: “This ‘conservative establishment’ is both corrupt and incompetent. They manipulate the passions of the conservative base and inflame them against the ‘GOP establishment’ in the hopes of bilking millions from them.” Citing reports that these groups expend a huge proportion of fundraising dollars on “overhead” (that would be, themselves), he observed that they are “engaging in nothing more than identity politics by tricking grassroots activists into believing that screaming loudly about ‘conservative principles’ is the same thing as actually trying to implement them. The net goal is simply personal enrichment and aggrandizement.” He is exactly right.
As I’ve written before, tea party-labeled groups have backed horrible ideas such as the shutdown, attacked mainstream Republicans and put up candidates, who if they managed to get through the primary would lose seats to the Democrats. Indeed, this time is has not gone unnoticed that David Brat got nothing from these groups that instead invested in losing, preposterous candidates.
The solution to the hucksters and manipulators is simple: Stop giving them money and stop paying attention. The liberal media love these groups because they are accessible and play perfectly the role of unhinged, self-destructive right-wingers. But that doesn’t mean ordinary voters should give them money, and it sure doesn’t mean that lawmakers should pay attention to them. Lawmakers need to pay attention to actual voters in their own districts and to credible polling showing what constituents and the electorate at large really think.
The pro-immigration group FWD.us, for example, is out with a poll of primary voters in Cantor’s district. It finds that immigration was a minor factor for Brat (about 22 percent said it was a big factor, 77 percent did not). A stunning 72 percent of primary voters said they’d support an immigration bill that “would do three things, secure the border with significantly more border patrol agents and fences, crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and allow the 11 million illegal immigrants who are currently in America to have a pathway to becoming U.S. citizens, only after they meet certain requirements, including passing a criminal background check, paying a fine, learning English, and waiting a period of years”). Had Cantor known that he might have defended his own views on immigration more vigorously, rather than playing into the accusation that he was trying to have it both ways.
The divide between professional conservative groups and GOP voters (even more conservative primary voters) on everything from the shutdown to immigration to the budget is vast. Certainly polemicists and professional political organizers can dominate the discussion if candidates concede the playing field to them. But principled conservatives who can engage the electorate should have nothing to fear from outfits like the Senate Conservatives Fund or back-benchers who supported half-baked tactics and ill-conceived challenges against fellow Republicans.
So should lawmakers pay attention to the agenda items of groups whose candidates bombed and right-wing media voices with their own agenda (e.g. enraging a core group of listeners to keep ratings up), or should they be in their districts, listening and talking, and using credible polling (presumably not from pollsters who told Cantor he was ahead by double-digits)? If he didn’t before, Cantor now knows.