Washington’s spinmeisters are out in full force “explaining” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss. The pro-immigration reform crowd is touting poll results that suggest voters in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District actually favor reform and argue that Mr. Cantor’s defeat had nothing to do with his support for immigration reform. Immigration foes, on the other hand, are arguing that his sometimes vocal and sometimes tepid support for reform defeated him. Tea Partyers are claiming his scalp as their own in spite of the fact that none of the national Tea Party groups helped his opponent or spent any money trying to defeat Mr. Cantor.
Anti-Tea Party GOP establishmentarians argue it wasn’t the Tea Party that defeated Mr. Cantor, but an ineffective campaign or his own failings as a candidate because the Tea Party is no longer the threat they perceived it to be a year or so ago. The good news for all these arguments is that there is a grain of truth in each, but none of them really explains what happened to Mr. Cantor.
In many ways, Mr. Cantor faced the perfect political storm as voters went to the polls on Tuesday. His opponent, David Brat, had little money, but a message that resonated with voters at a time when just about everyone one runs into on any street in any town or city outside Washington thinks the government is out of control and that politicians are more interested in their own agendas and feathering their nests than in representing the folks who elect them.
To many 7th District Republicans, Mr. Cantor fit this description better than any of his friends could have imagined. He began his political career as former Rep. Tom Bliley’s driver and protege. That got him elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he served for eight lackluster years and chaired his mentor’s congressional re-election campaigns. When Mr. Bliley retired, he anointed Mr. Cantor as his successor, and Mr. Cantor was duly elected to the House in November 2000.
The bright and articulate Mr. Cantor rose quickly through the House GOP ranks from deputy whip to whip in 2009 and then to majority leader in 2011. The media usually referred to him almost by rote as “the GOP’s rising star,” and he was widely viewed as likely to seek the speakership when the current speaker retires. But it all came crashing down Tuesday evening in what Washington insiders considered a shocking and unforeseen primary rout at the hands of a little-known college professor. Mr. Cantor has already announced he will be stepping down as majority leader at the end of July and will no doubt end up as a lobbyist next year. That strikes some as fitting, because Mr. Cantor himself was so certain that he would win that he spent Election Day in Washington at a Starbucks wooing lobbyists.
There had been clues, of course, as there always are in these cases, but they went unheeded.
Mr. Cantor, who enjoyed Tea Party support two years ago, decided to vanquish these upstart activists and their more traditionally conservative allies from the GOP leadership in Virginia. To do so, he channeled several hundred thousand dollars in campaign money into the races of more establishment and controllable candidates for party posts around the Commonwealth. The contests didn’t go well for Mr. Cantor’s candidates and proved personally embarrassing as he was forced to glumly sit through the defeat of his hand-picked candidate for the party chairmanship of his own district at the 7th Congressional District convention earlier this year. His attempt to essentially seize control of the party not only failed, but convinced GOP activists that he was no longer one of them.
As the campaign began, the virtually penniless Mr. Brat, who would eventually be outspent by something like 25 to 1 by Mr. Cantor, began questioning whether Mr. Cantor was representing the district’s voters in Washington or using them as he pursued his own agenda. Mr. Cantor responded as some establishment consultants have urged their clients, by trying to destroy Mr. Brat. He sent out mailings and ran ads claiming the professor was a “liberal” and that he, Mr. Cantor, was the only person standing in the way of President Obama’s plan to grant “amnesty” to illegal immigrants. It is probably safe to say that when he began the attacks on his opponent, few voters knew much, if anything, about Mr. Brat, but they quickly concluded that whatever the man’s shortcomings might be, it was inaccurate and unfair to label him a liberal.
Worse, from Mr. Cantor’s perspective, was the fact that his too-slick spinning of his immigration position gave Mr. Brat the opening he needed to label the congressman as two-faced. Mr. Cantor’s openness to compromise had been widely covered in the local press, and last year he had given a speech at a statewide GOP conference urging immigration reform. As questions arose, Mr. Cantor cut back on the town hall-type meetings that had become a staple in the district and gave the impression that he wouldn’t or couldn’t explain himself to the voters he needed to keep his job.
A week or so before the primary, a poll of district voters revealed that while still comfortably ahead, Mr. Cantor had dropped more than 20 points over several weeks. The poll was dismissed by Cantor allies and the media as an unreliable “outlier,” but it demonstrated that his opponent was finally becoming known — thanks to Mr. Cantor’s ads. In fact, Mr. Brat was finally gaining real traction as voters rejected Mr. Cantor’s attacks and began wondering whether they really wanted him representing them in Washington.
There will be those who will read more into Mr. Cantor’s defeat than the facts justify, but one thing is clear: Eric Cantor lost his seat because he failed to realize that a congressman perceived by those he is elected to represent as out of touch and more concerned with getting along in Washington than representing their wishes had better watch his back.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.