Eric Cantor was a hard core conservative who challenged Speaker John Boehner over a budget deal, caucused with the tea party crowd and was viewed by many as next in line for the speakership. He was no moderate, no big compromiser, no friend of the Obama administration. If anything, Cantor was the choice of many of the most conservative Republicans in Congress to lead them into the future. He stoked the tea party fires in 2009 and 2010.
So what happened?
Those of us who have been around campaigns for a while are constantly frustrated by the armchair quarterbacks who espouse the “silver bullet” theory – one simple reason for a victory or defeat. The press loves to come up with an easy to understand explanation and so do many politicos.
The current “silver bullet” is that Cantor lost because of the immigration issue. Even though he was pretty hard line, and tried to be more hard line at the end of the campaign, he had backed a version of the DREAM Act that allowed kids of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state college tuition rates.
There is no question that this was a driving issue and hurt Cantor. There is no question that many Republicans will view immigration reform as the third rail – touch it and you die – and that his loss makes the likelihood of comprehensive reform much more difficult.
I would certainly put it up near the top of the list of problems Cantor had this cycle. But he was the target of the overall anger towards Washington. He was viewed as out of touch and more concerned with being part of the Washington establishment than being a Virginian. After all, he spent nearly $170,000 on steak houses, close to the total of $200,000 spent by David Brat in his entire campaign.
He also made tactical errors in his campaign: attacking David Brat for being a “liberal college professor” when everyone knew that was untrue; elevating Brat’s campaign when he should have been elevating his own; ignoring the importance of a grassroots, volunteer-based organization. I’m sure those closer to the campaign have other critiques.
His opponent, and the right-wing talk show hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, mobilized the Rush Limbaugh set and built a strong grassroots operation. Christian rhetoric and evangelical fervor from Brat lifted his campaign. He gave credit to God for his win on Fox News.
We have done many campaigns in Virginia over the years. The area represented by Cantor is extremely conservative and one can’t forget the racist history, the closing of public schools after Brown v Board of Education and the opening of “segregation academies,” and the prohibition of interracial marriage. Yes, Virginia is a purple state and has changed since those dark days, but many hold on to beliefs that are racist and anti-Semitic. It is hard to say it, but the fact that Cantor is Jewish and perceived as soft on immigration probably did not do much for him with this subset of conservative Republican voters. To ignore race and religion and not to recognize the anger as part of the mix would probably be disingenuous.
When the polls are so wrong, when the 25-1 cash advantage doesn’t make much difference, when someone like Cantor who is so powerful for the district ends up losing by such a wide margin, you better look below the surface.
The scary thing about this nuclear explosion in Virginia is that it portends a battle royal for the soul of the Republican Party and pits a radical, righteous, reactionary faction against a more traditional, conservative, pragmatic faction. Will we now fail to enact immigration reform? Will we go back to nihilistic refusals to raise the debt? Will we have budget battles that paralyze government and deep-six economic growth?
The paralysis that Brat seems to condemn is precisely what the tea party, Ted Cruz faction so fanatically favors. Not good for Republicans, not good for America.
Make no mistake, this election will reverberate for years to come. And not in a good way.