June 11, 2014

Five Lessons from The Cantor Defeat

Steve Helber photo/AP
Now that Virginia Republican and (lame duck) House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has gone down to defeat in his primary, everyone’s doing some head scratching, trying to figure out how they missed this one as being a seat at risk.

Most in the punditry and and the Wild World of Talking Heads are pointing to Cantor’s position on immigration including the impression that he supported amnesty for illegals. Although he denied this was his position, his opponent, Randolph-Macon College economics professor David Brat, did touch on this issue and it’s an easy one to hang a hat on. Some others are reporting that it was Cantor’s heavy hand in Virginia Republican politics, and his actions as someone who clearly thought he was not in danger in the primary, that did him in. According to a report on PBS, he spent part of election day in Washington, not in the district, which is a quite a slap in the face to the voters.

Regardless of who wins the ‘why did this happen’ sweepstakes, I think there are several things we can learn from this

(1) The power of the incumbency is not unlimited.   This is a good thing, I think, and a refreshing change in the right direction – that an entrenched, leadership incumbent is not untouchable is not a bad thing.  It may not be a good thing who won, but that's a different discussion.  For those of us who would love to see something other than the do-nothing Congress we have today, we have to face facts that, in the House since the lowest re-election rate for incumbents (since 1964)  has been 85%,  in 1970 and again in 2010. In the Senate there’s more fluctuation and the rates are lower, but it’s still over 80% for all but three election cycles since 1982.  We insist that we don’t like them but we keep re-electing them -- in part because of the next point.

(2) Voter turnout is the most critical aspect of any election.  I’m convinced this is partly why the incumbents stay in office – we hate them, sure, and we want to get rid of all of them, but we don’t care enough to vote them out. For those of you who don’t live in voter-restriction states, complaining that it’s too hard to get to the polls, or takes too much time, or any of the other myriad excuses we hear, this is proof positive that is does matter and that your vote can make a difference. Otherwise, the small percentage of the people who do care, or who do understand that voting is the single most important responsibility a citizen has in a democracy (particularly important in primaries), will make the decision for you.

Part b of the voter turnout issue: Open primaries can be dangerous to a candidate's future. In Virginia, anyone who registers on time can vote in the primary, even if it's not for your party.  In the Cantor vs. The Professor battle, there were some 17,000 to 20,000 more votes this time than in Cantor's last race, and there's at least some speculation that it could have been Dems showing up to vote Cantor out.

(3) Money talks but sometimes people actually don’t listen.  Cantor outspent The Professor by something like 20 -1: over $5 million (on some 1000 ads, and this fun attack website)  to around $200,000. And lost by 12 points or so.  His opponent apparently didn't have the benefit of a lot of outside money, because the Tea Party didn't think this was a good investment for them.  He did however, have the conservative shrills  – Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter – in his corner. Regular readers know I have long been a complainer about the influence of money in politics, particularly money that comes from outside the district that’s up for grabs, and money that comes from the kinds of people (and by that I mean unions and corporations and PACS) that don’t actually have a pulse.  Seems that wasn't the tipping point in this election, and I think that’s also actually a good thing.  

(4) Never underestimate the power of an angry candidate, or an angry voter.  Brat was angry, not
Steve Helber Photo/AP 
particularly at Eric Cantor, he’s said, but at things in general.
This isn't a personal race. I'm not running against Eric. I'm just running on the founding principles that Adam Smith and free markets - they made us the greatest nation on the Earth. All right? It's no mystery. Our rights, tradition, along with free markets and the Judeo-Christian tradition all together made us the greatest nation on the face of the Earth. I think we're veering off course a little bit and I want to get us back on that course that brought us to greatness. 
Others were more specific on why they were voting. Here are a couple of comments from Henrico County, the home of both candidates, as captured by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Said Jim Rhodes:
I'm out here for one reason, and one reason only: To vote against Eric Cantor. He looks out for himself, and doesn't look out for his constituents.
Another voter, Nancy Harper expressed her "outrage" at the open primary system, and also that Cantor had been around long enough.
They get in there, and they go the way of all flesh.
Other voices surely have made themselves heard in various media reports, or will, but none were so loud and clear as the vote itself.

(5) All bets are off. We will need to re-do the maps on our political future, I think.  People are already positioning themselves to replace Cantor as Majority Leader, as he's announced he'll step down by the end of July, and it remains to be seen whether the next Leader will be more mainstream or more extreme.

Moreover:
  • Crying John Boehner, who has himself chastised the Tea Partiers in his caucus for being a little too extreme and a little too unwilling to go along in order to get along, may be in danger of losing the Speakership to the more extreme members of his party.
  • Any chance of an 'agenda' that President Obama had is likely completely out of the picture, unless he plans on continuing to use the power of the pen instead of the power of the legislative process to get things done.  That in and of itself, is a problem. 
  • Democrats who are sitting back rubbing their hands with glee, thinking that this will open the country's collective eyes and cause a shift away from extremism, are likely in for a sorry surprise. Yes, Debbie Wasserman Shultz, the Tea Party may have taken over the Republican party, but keep in mind the R's  - many of whom are proudly Tea Party affiliated - control the vast majority of the statehouses. Their numbers are already strong, and this shocking victory will likely do more to embolden them than it will to rally the notoriously lazy Dems.
  • Elected officials, who already seem to think first of their next election and somewhat later of what they were elected to do, will sharpen even more their laser-like focus on not making waves, on not following the leadership, on making sure they stand out by standing right in the middle of the crowd that is the flavor of the day. Afraid of losing? Be anti-immigration. Deny climate change. Be anti-regulation. Be anti-compromise. Whatever you do, don't play to the middle, and don't reach across the aisle. 
It will be interesting to see the lasting effects, if any, of this race on the mid-term Congressional races, and also on the 2016 Presidential vote. Will extremist candidates win more races this fall? And will the Dems take a hard turn to the left in response? Who will still be in the game at the end of the year? Is this enough of a turn to the right to keep Hillary out?  And will this finally prove the value in voting?  

On that last question, one can only hope.