- - Thursday, June 12, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat at the hands of a little-known, free-market economics professor is a hopeful reminder that sometimes the little guy can still beat City Hall.

Mr. Cantor lost his party primary to Dave Brat, a devoutly religious teacher who earned a master’s in divinity degree from a theological seminary in Princeton, N.J., and then got a doctorate in economics, which he taught at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College before running for Mr. Cantor’s seat.

Few paid much attention to him, least of all the national Tea Party establishment, who thought it was impossible to beat the No. 2 GOP House leader, who was re-elected with 79 percent of the vote in 2012.

Major Tea Party organizations plowed their money into other high-profile races, without much success lately, and Mr. Brat was left to scrounge money wherever he could. He raised a little more than $200,000 to Mr. Cantor’s nearly $5 million war chest.

However, primaries can be giant-killers because relatively few voters turn out for them. Get your voters to the polls in a low-turnout race by appealing to hot-button issues such as illegal immigration, the crooks on Wall Street and the big spenders in Congress, and you can beat Goliath.

We’re talking about very low turnout here: 36,110 votes for Mr. Brat (about the number of people who can fill a good-sized baseball stadium), versus only 28,898 votes for Mr. Cantor.

It was a political shocker, no doubt about it, but it wasn’t the unprecedented defeat the national news media called it, nor one with huge, long-lasting implications about this fall’s midterm elections.

Bigger congressional leaders have been taken down by come-from-behind insurgents before. Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington state was swept out of office in the 1994 general election when the Republicans decisively won control of the House.

Who can forget the stunning defeat 10 years later of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota by Republican John Thune? There are a number of others in the political record books.

In this case, Mr. Cantor had no one to blame but himself for not paying enough attention to this race, voter turnout and Mr. Brat’s message in a declining economy. Mr. Cantor was said to be aloof, spent too much time on party fundraising and not nearly enough time in his district.

Immigration is a big issue in Virginia, and Mr. Cantor had supported some kind of a compromise to begin fixing a broken system. However, voters who turned out for Mr. Brat wanted no part of that.

Still, it would be hard to draw hard-and-fast, national implications on this one issue — though it is clear that no comprehensive immigration-reform bill has a snowball’s chance in this election year, or the next two years, either.

When Mr. Cantor was going down in flames Tuesday night, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who backs immigration reform, was cruising toward a hefty 56 percent victory over a multicandidate Tea Party field.

Yet, the national news media was going ballistic in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Brat’s huge upset, drawing over-the-top, bombastic conclusions from this one primary race.

Preposterous newspaper headlines said Mr. Cantor’s defeat had thrown “Congress into disarray,” had dealt a “stunning blow to the GOP establishment” and was also “bad news for big business.”

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