by Donna Brazile
The favorite term to describe Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss to an unknown was “Earthquake!?” The New York Time’s 2012 election-predictor guru Nate Silver — now with his own firm — even produced graphs comparing all 3.5 or higher Southern California earthquakes since 1999 to House incumbent loses in primaries since 2010.
I can’t blame Silver for having a little fun. The truth is, we were all shocked and gobsmacked because we believed the Republican “establishment” was unshakable. So when their ground shook, we were stunned. A Virginia college professor, Dave Brat, has demonstrated voters could collapse the Republican establishment in the 2012 election.
He called it a miracle from God. I call it “chickens coming home to roost.”
Cantor’s defeat means the 2014 election is no longer in the bag for the Republicans. And that, dear reader, truly is a political earthquake. We should not underestimate the magnitude of what just happened. This was a rebellion against Republican leaders in Washington. They are no longer outsiders.
The popular analysis is that Cantor, a consistent foe of immigration reform, was beaten because his opponent made immigration a key issue in the closing weeks of the campaign. Brat leveled an untrue charge that Cantor favored amnesty. If that issue resonated with voters at all, it was because it positioned Brat as a man with personal convictions. By contrast, though Cantor’s been a staunch foe of immigration reform, many charge Cantor with talking about it in such a way as to play both sides.
Public Policy Polling (PPP), a Democratic polling firm, polled Cantor’s district on primary day, and found 72 percent of them supported immigration reform. Lest you think PPP’s affiliation affects its polling, know that several studies of 2012 presidential election pollsters put PPP on top of the list for accuracy. No, immigration reform did not defeat Cantor.
Eric Cantor defeated Cantor.
Voters in his district awakened to the reality that Cantor wasn’t the solution to doublespeak, Washington insider cronyism and gridlock. He was part of the problem.
Cantor was an inside-the-Beltway operative. He was so busy running as K-Street’s man to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House that he forgot his real constituents lived in Virginia.
That’s the truth of it.
Red State, a conservative online publication, put it this way: “Cantor’s constituent services moved more toward focusing on running the Republican House majority than his congressional district. K Street, the den of Washington lobbyists, became his chief constituency.”
There were signs Cantor saw this too late. At a district Republican convention held in Richmond shortly before the election, Cantor’s pick for the 7th Congressional District Republican chairmanship lost. And when Cantor addressed the convention — key, active members of his own party — he spoke for only 24 seconds before they drowned him out with boos.
PPP primary day polling also found Cantor had developed serious negatives among constituents. Only 43 percent of Republican voters approved of Cantor’s job performance.
How did professional pollsters miss what was clearly a pervasive rebellion against Cantor as a Washington insider? How did they miss this massive voter movement — not just of tea party Republicans, but of most Republican voters in Cantor’s district — against the Republican Party establishment?
Pollsters and professional analysts overlooked the fact that dissatisfaction with their Republican leader’s conduct wasn’t just confined to a litmus test of their conservative “purity.” Cantor came to represent some politicians inside the Beltway who no longer believe they need the folks back home to keep them in power.
In the end, not even standard appeals to GOP voters’ partisan dislike of all things Obama could overcome a growing perception — and disgust — of being flatly ignored. Add to this that Brat ran as a Republican populist. Primary voters believe Brat has real convictions. That he is for the middle class and against those in Washington, like Mitch McConnell and Cantor, who represent one square mile of Wall Street at all times.
Brat’s Republican populism wasn’t caught by pollsters because many, as in 1948, apparently stopped polling. Cantor’s pollster predicted he’d win by a 34 percent margin. Internal polls aren’t always believed by professionals. But they apparently did believe the Republican establishment to be “voterproof” against any challenge by a newcomer with pocket change and lint for campaign funds.
The electorate had expanded, and Cantor’s polling models apparently didn’t reflect this. Cantor’s district had been gerrymandered to include more Republicans, and ironically, that hurt him most. The more Republicans of any stripe who showed up to vote — and there were a little more than in the last mid-term back in 2010 — the more trouble Cantor was in.
On primary day, a candidate who doesn’t take the voters for granted would be outdoors on the hustle for votes, calling last-minute undecided voters, showing up at high-voting precincts or greeting workers at factory gates. Cantor was hosting a regular monthly meeting he held at a Capitol Hill Starbucks with campaign contributors to the party.
He was back in Washington, D.C., and not home asking his constituents for their votes.
Perceived insincerity and a growing personal dislike and distrust of Cantor did him in. He became the poster boy for the Republican establishment, which Republicans of all stripes no longer like.
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