There was a seismic event on Tuesday night in the 7th District of Virginia as sitting U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost in a landslide to a virtually unknown tea party candidate. It’s quite rare for a Member of leadership to lose an election. The most recent examples are when John Thune beat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle for the Senate in 2004 and when Speaker Tom Foley lost to George Nethercutt in 1994. Before that, you have to reach all the way back to 1952, when the sitting United States Senate Majority Leader lost to a young, upstart businessman named Barry Goldwater.
Sometimes politics is just crazy interesting. Cantor losing is crazy interesting.
How did it happen?
The immediate conventional wisdom being pushed by the D.C. chattering class is that Cantor’s willingness to support comprehensive immigration reform was THE reason. Conventional wisdom is pushing the narrative that the tea party is racist and will not tolerate anything but the strictest enforcement bills coming out of Washington.
Immigration may have played a role, but it was far from the only – or even biggest – reason for Cantor’s loss.
Fundamentally, the reason Cantor lost is because he came to embody all that base Republican voters despise: ladder-climbing insider, close ties to K Street and Wall Street, too focused on Washington, and generally being out-of-touch with his district.
Cantor’s schedule on Election Day is the perfect microcosm of what went wrong. Most candidates I have worked for – including candidates for Governor, Senate, House, down to state legislature – spend Election Day getting out the vote. That means going to headquarters and joining volunteers making calls to voters, stopping at a few polling locations and shaking hands, etc.
Cantor started the day doing a fundraiser in D.C. Then stayed in D.C. until votes concluded around 3 p.m. Then, drove down to his district, presumably in time for the “victory” party. There was no personal touch of voters in the district. No urgency of making sure he did everything he could to ensure victory.
Secondarily, he lost because he thought he could bury his opponent with TV and did nothing to build grassroots support. In fact, he worked against much of the grassroots in the district by trying to replace various precinct and party leaders with loyalists.
His ads tended to be over the top or too cute by half – and over-using the “liberal college professor” claim. Even his positive ads were over-produced – the best ads politicians can do for themselves most of the time is look right into the camera and talk to voters like adults.
The biggest shock of the night was how shocked he and his team were by the outcome. You only get stunned in politics when you don’t have your finger on the pulse of what is going on around you.
I’m sure there will be mountains of analysis done on top of what has been written so far, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals: if you lose touch with your constituency and get caught up in the insider game in Washington, it can catch up with you.