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That primary threat to Cantor? It looks like a bust

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Instead of fearing defeat, House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor may be able to rest easy in his upcoming primary race. 

The poster child for Establishment Republicanism in Virginia, Cantor won his first (and last) last primary fight for the 7th congressional district seat by only 263 votes. Admittedly, this was 14 years ago, and the district had modestly different boundaries then.  Longtime incumbent Rep. Tom Bliley hand-picked Cantor to be his successor.  He had support from all the right people and fundraisers. Yet he barely won, despite greatly outspending an opponent (state Sen. Steve Martin) written off by the media.

Next to House Speaker John Boehner, Mr. Cantor is the most visible Republican face of a wildly unpopular Congress.  Fully 67 percent of Republicans in one recent poll wanted to fire every member of Congress — including their own.

The rumblings about Cantor have been growing for some time. In 2012, anti-establishment Republicans effectively ran Mr. Cantor’s candidate for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, out of the GOP.  Bolling’s support for new transportation taxes and his eventual refusal to back GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli over Democrat Terry McAuliffe didn’t begin to explain Mr. Cantor’s 2013 intra-party troubles. Soon Bolling’s former top adviser, Boyd Marcus, publicly endorsed McAuliffe, saying that no true conservative could support Cuccinelli. It now turns out Mr. Marcus got paid $140,000 for his trashing of loyal conservatives.

And it gets worse: Some 7th District Republicans are still furious with Cantor for backing former GOP Del. Bill Janis’s independent challenge to the official GOP candidate for Henrico County commonwealth’s attorney. This suburban county long served as Mr. Cantor’s political base. His high-handed meddling in local politics led to a Democrat winning the job with a mere voter plurality.

Any competent campaign consultant could see that all this adds up to a solid base for a credible anti-Cantor candidate.  Former Rep. Ron Paul’s quixotic presidential campaign got 37.5 percent of the primary vote against Cantor’s candidate, Mitt Romney.

Bottom line: Even a lackluster, underfunded challenger starts with a seeming 40 percent floor as the “ABC” – Anyone-But-Cantor — candidate. Henrico, and to a lesser extent neighboring Chesterfield County, would likely decide a competitive election in the district. Both are served by the same media market. Primary turnout in Virginia skews to only the most highly informed and motivated voter.

This means regular news consumers will prove the key demographic. They should skew toward “throw the bums out,” Tea Party backers. A smart anti-Cantor campaign, backed up with money and resources by anti-establishment Republicans from around the country, would be potent. Once a populist fire gets lit, all the endorsements and high-dollar fund-raising can’t put the blaze out. As Joe Louis warned Billy Cohn: You can run but you can’t hide.

But right now, Mr. Cantor’s main challenger, Randolph-Macon economics Professor David Brat, is underwhelming even to his natural anti-Cantor base. His message is muddled and his campaign operation not ready for populist prime time.

It is only February, meaning the primary is four months away. Professor Brat certainly has the intellectual ability. But is he savvy enough politically to convince the right people and political forces to rally behind him to send a shot heard around America’s political world?

Our verdict: There is no evidence of that yet.  If he wants to put himself in a position to win what is a winnable race, the good professor needs to go to campaign school. Mr. Cantor is a tough, seasoned political operator eyeing the speakership (at a minimum). He is going to attack early and do whatever it takes to keep key national Republicans, and outside groups, from helping Brat.

So far, it is working.

Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.