The news alert beeped on my phone and I had to read it twice: “Eric Cantor loses.” What does it mean? Two different explanations, one for his district, one for Washington. Cantor lost at home for the same reason that incumbents who go “national” sometimes lose: They get too big for their britches. They become more familiar on “Meet the Press” than during meet-and-greets back home. This is one of the oldest scenarios in politics; it’s called “losing touch.” In Washington, however, the loss will be interpreted well beyond that, whether it be an analysis of how immigration reform is dead or how the tea party is still alive. And this narrative will influence Congress, making it even more polarized and fearful.
To me, the lesson is that while all individual political events are local, they must all fit a national narrative. The most accurate national interpretation of the Cantor loss is not in the prospects for legislation or the perpetuation of the tea party’s sword of Damocles, but rather in the intensity of anti-incumbency fervor this year. It is a wave year, and to survive, incumbents are going to have run every day like scalded dogs. To win, they and their consultants are going to have to run the race of their careers.