Note: A version of this story appeared as “Your Theory About Why Cantor Lost Is Probably Wrong” on Politico Magazine Wednesday night.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch called it a “political earthquake.” It was the “upset of the century,” added Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star. A powerful, veteran member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia had fallen in a primary to a political upstart.
No, these are not the words used to describe House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss Tuesday night to Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph-Macon College. They are from 48 years ago, when Rep. Howard Smith, the chairman of the House’s mighty Rules Committee, fell in the Democratic primary to George Rawlings, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
There is a fairly easy explanation for what happened in 1966: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had vastly expanded black suffrage, and a new influx of African-American voters shook up the Democratic Party a year later, contributing not only to the defeat of Smith but also Sen. Willis Robertson, a Democrat and the father of televangelist Pat Robertson, in the Senate primary. The southern Democratic parties had been struggling to reconcile their national and local identities for decades, and, at least in Virginia, this change in the electorate helped destroy the old order, leading to a more traditional Democratic-versus-Republican system.
Perhaps five decades from now, Cantor’s loss will be easier to explain within the context of larger events. Maybe it is indeed a harbinger of a coming “populist revolution” or a sign that the Republican Civil War is once again at full tilt. But as of right now, the best explanation seems to be a combination of factors that have more to do with Cantor and his position than with larger forces in American life.
Although a primary loss by the House majority leader is a shock — and also unprecedented in American history since the creation of the position in 1899 — it does not come as part of a clear and larger anti-incumbent wave. So far this year, 26 states have held their primaries to determine the nominees for 257 House seats (including the advancing candidates in California’s top-two system) — 59% of the national total. Of the 229 incumbents running again, only two have lost: Cantor and Rep. Ralph Hall, a 91-year-old Republican who would have been renominated if Texas did not have a runoff system requiring winners to get over 50% (just 11 states have some form of runoff system, and nearly all of them are in the South).
Even with the rise of the Tea Party, just the latest outbreak of a strain of anti-D.C. Republican conservatism that goes back at least to Barry Goldwater, there has not been a steady rise in the number of primary defeats. Since the end of World War II, just 2% of the House members and 5% of the Senate members seeking renomination have been defeated. In 2010, the year of the Tea Party, 397 members of the House ran for renomination, and just four were denied it (1%). In 2012, 391 members of the House ran for renomination: 13 lost (3%), but eight of those lost to other members of Congress in redistricting-induced member vs. member battles.
So yes, House members lose primaries every year, but typically only a few. Oftentimes, they come as surprises, like last cycle’s losses by Reps. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, and John Sullivan, an Oklahoma Republican. In both cases, the incumbents were largely caught flat-footed and, generally speaking, the conventional wisdom prior to Cantor’s ouster was that when Republicans take primaries seriously, they win. But now there’s a sense that Cantor might have actually taken this one too seriously.
Fresh-faced candidates often struggle to get their names out to the electorate, to the point that negative advertising by the other side might actually help. One freshman House member recently told us that he thanked the leader of the other party when he got to Capitol Hill for all the negative ads in his race. It’s an anecdotal theory, but Cantor’s heavy, negative attacks on Brat might have just served to elevate his standing with voters, a point Brat made himself in post-race interviews. Consider that Brat only raised about $200,000 while Cantor had more than $5 million to work with. Support from conservative radio talkers like Laura Ingraham was also helpful to raising Brat’s profile.
With Virginia’s open primary system, Democrats could attempt to influence the outcome of the race — and it appears that they may have tried to some degree. Virginia has no party registration, so voters can easily vote in a Republican primary one year and a Democratic primary the next.
A precinct-level look at Henrico County (which partially surrounds Richmond), where a little less than a third of the contest’s votes came from, shows some evidence of increased turnout in heavily Democratic districts. Although overall turnout in the Henrico precincts of the Seventh District was up 45% compared with Cantor’s 2012 primary win, nine of the 10 precincts where President Obama won 60% or more of the vote in 2012 had at least a 50% increase in primary turnout; six had at least a 66% increase. This is not to say that Democrats won Brat the election. After all, he won by an 11-point margin, and even with an open system, most primary voters are committed partisans (in this case, Republicans). As such, it’s a stretch to classify this as anything other than a defeat inflicted by Republicans on a Republican. Still, there are indications that Brat was reaching out to Democrats for support, and some may have answered his call. Overall, turnout was up dramatically from the 2012 primary, going from about 47,000 to 65,000.
One bit of old conventional wisdom, from decades ago in politics, is that voters understand and appreciate the importance of having high-level leaders in Congress who pump up the district or state. Cantor, as the House majority leader, certainly qualified as such a leader. This antiquated argument has been dusted off most explicitly by the D.C. establishment campaign of Sen. Thad Cochran, the six-term Mississippi Republican who looks like an underdog in an upcoming runoff. State Sen. Chris McDaniel, Cochran’s GOP challenger, has explicitly rejected the notion of using Washington clout to bring taxpayer slush back home, and it’s an argument that fits the more conservative, less pragmatic wing of the Republican Party. Those are the same kind of voters—generally lumped together as Tea Partiers—who also presumably voted against Cantor. The realities of governance dragged down Cantor, too: His potential connection to immigration reform was politically problematic, as well as leadership’s decision to bail on the government shutdown last October, which infuriated the Republican base.
As Cantor can now attest, being in House and Senate leadership might not be much of a political blessing. Tom Foley, a Washington Democrat, became the first House speaker to lose since the Civil War as part of the 1994 Republican wave, and there have been some other notable losses and close calls by prominent congressional leaders since then. Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, lost the general election in 2004. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat, had a very close call in the 2010 general, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, could have a close call or worse in November. Cantor actively worked to boost his national stature, an effort that sometimes led to stumbles, like a weak “60 Minutes” interview in 2012 where the most notable detail was one of Cantor’s aides interrupting Lesley Stahl while the cameras were rolling. Again, there seems to be a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that voters resented Cantor’s national aspirations and felt he neglected the district as a result.
Which raises another lesson: National exposure may not always be a net plus for a candidate’s prospects back home. One example: Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican who became a symbol of the Tea Party before and during her ill-fated run for president in 2011, had an unexpectedly close call in her very Republican district in the 2012 general election. She’s not running for another term. In the same state, Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat and former famous comedian, has made news since his 2008 election for not making news and eschewing the national media. Keeping his head down might help explain why a Democratic senator elected by just 312 votes in a Democratic year is now a solid reelection favorite in what’s shaping up to be at least a moderately Republican year.
Another Cantor problem might have just been geographical: Draw a district that Mitt Romney won with 57% of the vote and give it to Cantor in Wisconsin, and maybe he doesn’t lose to an underfunded college professor. But Virginia, despite its general election turn toward Barack Obama (the antithesis of the old Byrd Machine Democrat), is still part of the South, the bastion of American conservatism. Since 2010, the first election featuring the Tea Party, seven Republican House incumbents have lost renomination to non-incumbent challengers (not counting those aforementioned member-versus-member contests in 2012). All seven of those losses occurred in either traditionally southern states (one apiece in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) or in places that could be considered peripherally southern (Oklahoma and Southwest Ohio). So perhaps the South, which in the old conservative Democratic days cherished long-serving senators and congressmen who ascended to leadership positions in Congress, is now a place where conservative incumbents might be in a bit more danger than in other parts of the country. But again: There are so few primary losses by incumbent members that it’s hard to make sweeping conclusions.
In the wake of such an unexpected result, it would be tempting to give in to hyperbole, like this Roll Call headline — “Stunner: Cantor Upset Changes Everything.” But what has actually changed? True, the identity of the House majority leader is about to change, although that person might end up being someone quite similar to Cantor, like his friend and fellow “young gun” Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California. Incumbents will almost certainly continue to win reelection at a very high rate in the House and Senate, even if the Cantor loss paired with a potential Cochran defeat in two weeks will make it seem like voters are actually making good on their often hollow threat to “throw the bums out.” American voters almost always renominated their members of Congress in the years before the seemingly epochal Smith/Robertson defeats in 1966, and they continue to do so. On a policy front, the prospects for immigration reform have probably worsened — but they were bad already. The House Republican rank and file just does not see eye to eye with party leaders on this one, and the voters who put them in office largely feel the same way. Looking ahead to November, Brat should not have much trouble holding this district, so it’s not as if a weak general election candidate is about to throw a seat to Democrats (we’re keeping the district’s rating of Safe Republican for the general election).
And in a larger sense, Cantor’s loss doesn’t have much to do with the real battleground of 2014: the Senate.
The point here is that yes, Cantor’s loss was shocking and notable. It’s the political story of the year, so far. But take a deep breath: These things sometimes happen.
In other primary news
South Carolina: Given the eye-popping results in VA-7 this week and the Mississippi GOP Senate primary last week, it’s notable that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) wound up having a fairly quiet primary night. Coming into the 2014 cycle, Graham was widely viewed as an incumbent who could potentially be beaten by a challenger on his right flank. Yet Graham won renomination with 56% of the vote on Tuesday, clearing the majority hurdle to avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher. Graham was undoubtedly aided by the fact that he faced six opponents instead of one or two, none of whom were A-list (or even B-list) candidates. Had a House Republican from the Palmetto State chosen to challenge Graham, it is possible Graham might have faltered. After all, he did only garner 56% of the vote under relatively ideal circumstances.
Maine: With Rep. Mike Michaud (D) running for the Pine Tree State’s governorship, ME-2 is open for the taking this fall. On the Democratic side, state Sen. Emily Cain easily defeated state Sen. Troy Jackson. The more competitive contest was in the GOP primary, which saw ex-state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin defeat Kevin Raye, who lost to Michaud in both 2002 and 2012. With Cain’s victory, we’re moving this race from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic. Republicans are probably going to have many better House targets.
Nevada: The big result in the Silver State was the GOP primary for lieutenant governor, which saw Gov. Brian Sandoval’s (R) preferred candidate, Mark Hutchison, win the Republican nomination. This result has ramifications for Sandoval’s political future — a potential 2016 heavyweight Senate bout between him and current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) could be in the cards. Should Hutchison defeat Lucy Flores (D) in the general, Sandoval will have a Republican to whom he can hand off the governorship if he decides to take on Reid (or if he’s chosen as a Republican presidential running mate). However, having a Democratic second-in-command would probably make Sandoval less likely to run for Senate.
In NV-4, Cresent Hardy (R) defeated Niger Innis (R) in the GOP primary (or possibly a battle of awesome names) to take on Rep. Steven Horsford (D) in the fall. This race remains Likely Democratic. In other news, Silver State Democrats attempted to pick “none of these candidates” as their 2014 gubernatorial nominee — the none-of-the-above choice amazingly garnered a plurality of the party’s primary vote. Thus, second-place finisher Bob Goodman, former head of the state’s economic development program, will be the Democratic nominee in November.
North Dakota: Rep. Kevin Cramer (R, ND-AL) was unopposed for renomination and will be heavily favored in the fall against George Sinner (D), who was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
Virginia: It’s easy to forget that there was other action in Virginia besides Cantor’s unexpected defeat. In VA-8, former Lt. Gov. Don Beyer comfortably won the Democratic primary with 46% of the vote, as was expected given his large fundraising haul and high name recognition. He’ll be a sure bet to take over for retiring Rep. Jim Moran (D) in this safe Democratic seat. Also, in VA-1, Rep. Rob Wittman (R) easily turned away a primary challenger to win renomination, setting him up for a November stroll.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings change
Correction: Last week, we wrote that Iowa and Mississippi were the only states to never elect a woman to Congress, but we omitted two other states that also have not broken the congressional glass ceiling: Delaware and Vermont.