Seven Key Takeaways From Eric Cantor’s Shocking Defeat

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House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

No incumbent majority leader had lost a seat in Congress since 1899, when the post was first created. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) broke that streak last night. He’s announced that he’ll step down from leadership within weeks.

Cantor’s stunning defeat at the hands of economist and college professor Dave Brat, a previously unknown candidate who reportedly was outspent by more than twenty-to-one, has sent political reporters scurrying for explanations. What does it mean for the GOP establishment? For the 2014 midterms? For immigration reform?

Below, we’ve rounded up some of the best analyses of Cantor’s unlikely loss. But an important caveat as you sort through the reporting: Be wary of sweeping conclusions based on a midterm primary. Only 65,000 people cast ballots last night — around 12 percent of registered voters in Virginia’s 7th District. So while the results may say a lot about the Republican Party’s activist base, Eric Cantor’s relationship with those voters and perhaps the mood among the most conservative constituents in Virginia’s 7th District, they probably offer little insight into nationwide trends heading into November’s midterms.

1. Cantor Stuck His Thumb In GOP Activists’ Eyes

At The Daily Beast, Ben Jacobs writes about how tensions between Cantor and GOP activists arose at last month’s state party meetings.

One Virginia Republican familiar with the race suggested that Cantor’s loss was due to “a perfect storm” brought about by the fact that Cantor seemed to be schooled in “the George Armstrong Custer school of tactics as opposed to Sung Tzu school.” The Republican suggested that while immigration was a factor, the bigger issues were internal party politics. As opposed to other Virginia Republicans in Congress, Cantor didn’t show the most basic respect to Tea Partiers in his district. It wasn’t about Cantor’s votes but rather that he didn’t even show up to explain himself and get yelled at…

Cantor also exacerbated things by failing at attempts to play internal politics within the Republican Party of Virginia. In May, his candidate to run the congressional convention in his district, Linwood Cobb, was defeated solely because he was supported by Cantor. Grassroots Republicans resented that the House majority leader was trying to “launch a boneheaded frontal assault” on the state party to take control of it. The result meant was that “run of the mill Paul Ryan Republicans” were just as furious with Cantor as Tea Partiers were. In a straw poll taken at that the convention, Brat was the favorite of attendees, but so was the establishment choice for the Senate nomination, Ed Gillespie.

Virginia’s tea party groups are among the best-funded and most organized in the nation, and they had a powerful ground game last night. Given the low turnout, these unforced errors with Virginia party activists played a major role in Cantor’s surprising defeat.

2. Was it Immigration?

Dave Brat ran a campaign focused heavily on his opposition to immigration reform, which Cantor has suggested the party needs to pass to remain viable in national elections.

Seung Min Kim reports for Politico that a new poll by Public Policy Polling found that registered Republicans in the 7th District favored comprehensive immigration reform by a 70-27 margin. The pollsters claim that immigration didn’t tilt the race toward Brat.

But the PPP poll explained the provisions of comprehensive reform before asking the question, and that always generates higher support than surveys which simply ask people’s views of “immigration reform.”

At The Daily Beast, Mike Tomasky writes that immigration was indeed a deciding factor — and that it spells doom for efforts to get a reform package through Congress anytime soon.

Obviously, first, it’s about immigration. That was David Brat’s (that’s the guy who won) whole campaign: Cantor was a liberal who supported a path to citizenship for the swarthy illegals. (He didn’t say that, of course, at least the swarthy part.) Immigration reform is D-E-A-D. There is no chance the House will touch it. That means it’s dead for this Congress, which means that next Congress, the Senate would have to take the lead in passing it again. (The Senate’s passage of the current bill expires when this Congress ends.) And the Senate isn’t going to touch it in the next Congress, even if the Democrats hold on to the majority. Those handful of Republicans who backed reform last year will be terrified to do so. And it’s difficult to say when immigration reform might have another shot.

But it’s worth noting that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has long been seen as a major target of the tea party movement, cruised to victory in his primary despite being one of a bipartisan group of senators to strike a deal for immigration reform last year. Granted, the anti-Graham vote was split among six largely unknown candidates.

David Marx writes at Politix that it wasn’t Cantor’s position on the issue as much as it was his messaging.

Cantor’s defeat offers another lesson — how not to run a negative campaign. In trying to stave off Brat’s challenge from the right, Cantor’s campaign threw out a bunch of ludicrous charges that only backfired.

Rare Editor Jeremy Lott — one of the few political analysts to detect the majority’s leader’s electoral troubles in advance — wrote before the votes were counted about desperate tactics by Cantor’s minions that were likely to backfire.

“Cantor and allies have run anti-Brat television ads, sent out fliers, blanketed the radio waves. The Cantorites have called the tea party-favored Brat a ‘liberal college professor’ and accused him, falsely, of backing amnesty for illegal immigrants. (Which, given Cantor’s slipperiness on the subject, takes chutzpah.)”

That broke a cardinal rule of negative campaigning — make your charges credible. One of Brat’s main issues was opposing the type of immigration reform sought by House Democrats.

3. Cantor’s Ambition Alienated Constituents

Jeff Schapiro reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch that there was “a perception within Republican circles that Cantor, in his determination to succeed John Boehner as speaker, seemed more interested in positioning for the next phase of the nonstop news cycle than embracing a distinct agenda.”

Cantor — a self-styled Young Gun, who along with Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, was a symbol of Yuppie Republicanism — became a distant figure to many of his Virginia constituents, seen only on Sunday talk shows and in the pages of national newspapers.

Cantor’s priority was traveling the country, raising money from corporate and financial leaders. The torrent of Cantor-generated cash would shore up a smaller but more influential constituency for the often-aloof lawyer: a handful of conservatives within the Republican caucus who would decide the speakership.

4. Brat Ran Against Corruption

At Republic Report, Lee Fang writes, “The national media is buzzing about Brat’s victory, but for all of the wrong reasons.”

Brat told Internet radio host Flint Engelman that the “number one plank” in his campaign is “free markets.” Brat went on to explain, “Eric Cantor and the Republican leadership do not know what a free market is at all, and the clearest evidence of that is the financial crisis … When I say free markets, I mean no favoritism to K Street lobbyists.” Banks like Goldman Sachs were not fined for their role in the financial crisis — rather, they were rewarded with bailouts, Brat has said.

Brat…spent much of the campaign slamming both parties for being in the pocket of “Wall Street crooks” and D.C. insiders. The folks who caused the financial crisis, Brat says, “went onto Obama’s rolodex, the Republican leadership, Eric’s rolodex.”

During several campaign appearances, Brat says what upset him the most about Cantor was his role in gutting the last attempt at congressional ethics reform.

5. Little Evidence for Democratic Crossover Voting

There has been some speculation that Democrats “crossed over” to swing the vote against Cantor in Virginia’s open primary. But Scott Clement throws cold water on the theory in The Washington Post.

Virginia’s lack of party registration makes it difficult to pin down whether Democrats crossed over in large numbers, but local level turnout provides some indirect clues on whether this phenomenon was widespread. On two counts, the data cast doubt on whether Democratic cross-over voting caused Cantor’s loss.

While Republican primary turnout spiked by 28 percent over 2012, according to the State Board of Elections, Cantor received nearly 8,500 fewer votes this year than he did in the 2012 Republican primary, a drop that was larger than Brat’s 7,200-vote margin of victory. Regardless of how many Democrats turned out to oppose Cantor, he still would have prevailed had he maintained the same level of support as in his 2012 landslide.

If Democrats showed up in large numbers to vote against Cantor, turnout should have spiked highest from 2012 in Democratic-leaning areas, with Cantor seeing an especially large drop-off in support. In fact, turnout rose slightly more in counties that voted more heavily for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

6. Did Cantor Hurt Himself With a Vote on Obamacare?

David Mark offers another “overlooked reason” for Cantor’s defeat:

In late March, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor brought up a bill that passed by voice vote. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that. Except this time the Virginia Republican’s move triggered a groundswell of conservative opposition — the very type of negative political passion that helped contribute to Cantor’s stunning GOP primary defeat Tuesday.

The legislation patched the sustainable growth rate requirement in the Medicare program. There was a good policy reason for pushing the measure through…

But to tea party groups and other Cantor foes, it enabled Obamacare — the worst type of Republican betrayal. It was just that type of maneuver that allowed Republican challenger David Brat — an otherwise little-known college economics professor — to brand Majority Leader Cantor an insider wheeler-dealer bailing out his crony contributors.

7. Who Is Dave Brat?

One clear takeaway here is that the Republican Party continues to have a major problem with its radicalized base. Cantor is not only very conservative, he’s also a seasoned and experienced legislator, and someone who can raise a lot of money. The seat is safe, so Brat will almost certainly enter Congress as a back-bencher who is prone to using extreme rhetoric — he wrote in 2011 that Hitler’s rise “could all happen again, quite easily.”

While little is known about Brat, Reid Epstein offers a few insights at The Wall Street Journal:

An economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., Mr. Brat appeared more interested in campaigning to make a point than in winning. The Washington Post reported last month that he no-showed meetings with key conservative activists in the capital. His excuse: He had final exams to grade…

There are clues to Mr. Brat’s ideology in his academic CV. His current book project is titled “Ethics as Leading Economic Indicator? What went Wrong? Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition and Human Reason.”

His other published works include the titles “God and Advanced Mammon – Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” and “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand.”

Odds and Ends

Here’s some additional reporting that may be of interest. Mike DeBonis profiles Brat’s longshot Democratic opponent, Jack Trammell, for The Washington Post. National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher looks at how Cantor’s internal pollster “whiffed” in projecting a 34-point win for Cantor. Robert Costa reports for The Washington Post that Cantor won’t run as a write-in candidate. His colleagues Rosalind Helderman and Laura Vozzella consider whether anti-Semitism played a role in the outcome. And Charles Pierce’s take at Esquire is always worth reading.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Anonymous

    Repbublican “Leadership.” Can’t win at the childrens’ game of winning your partiy’s primary when you are the incumbent. Is this really so surprising? Just a little more “complicated” than John Dingell in Michigan not being able to run as Democrat because some of his signature gatherers were not registered voters.

  • Veteran

    Can’t or is the crazed confederate that took off his tea party mask before they seized the majority. Over confident, not listening to people that vote, and lost just like romney and lying ryan. I can’t wait for November to see more tea party disappointment!

  • Ancientone

    I guess its true…Money can’t buy everything, even a political candidate! We are in the soup now for sure!

  • Anonymous

    In the overall scheme of things, given the absence of a truly progressive movement, it just doesn’t make any difference. Immigration is simply the current issue of choice to avoid addressing our economic crisis, and most specifically, our alarming poverty crisis. I’m not sure how many readers are actually knowledgeable about current immigration policies that apply to all immigrants, regardless of nation of origin. What is today’s liberal response to all those immigrants who, like so many US-born people, find themselves jobless and in poverty?

  • Anonymous

    Cantor’s defeat is the result of too few Republicans voting in the runoff. We need to allow for voting via Internet to increase participation. Too few voters have an excess influence on our democracy putting radicals and obstructionists into the Congress.

    This phenomenon can be seen in the radical preferences from the Texas Republican convention which featured excessive tea partiers attendance. That resulted in advocates towards getting the discredited gay therapy going, the disproven creationism in the schools, accelerating the use of CO2 pollution to make the future of global warming destruction greater.

  • margaret Buccini

    Conyers was the congressman, not Dingell. Dingell is not running again. Conyers will be on the ballot. The law regarding gathering signatures was declared unconstitutional. Michigan was one of the few states with such restrictions on the criteria for those gathering signatures.

  • Anonymous

    Bibi will be sooo disappointed.

  • David Sheridan

    As the extremists have pulled the GOP farther right, it seems the Democratic party has moved to the right as well. Progressives need to organize and start kicking out the corrupt pre-war, pro-police state, pro empire Democrats.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm – that includes just about all of ’em, doncha think?

  • Anonymous

    I still say, in the end, all politics is personal …..

  • Anonymous

    Both parties have been exclusively wedded to private financial interests for the past 25 years. Corruption has become a central issue for all except those who are elected to and live in the Washington bubble. However I’m not ready to write off a central government that operates in full view of the citizens while state governments are equally corrupted by special interests and have the distinct advantage of operating in the shadows 365 days a year. Sunshine continues to be the best disinfectant as long as you have a functioning press that is not fully owned and operated by private financial interests !

  • HopeWFaith

    a rightie tightie with a dislike for Wall Street. find it very hard to believe. i’ll be watching this guy to see if he changes his tune, full swing, once in the Republican House. things can change over night, when the kokies get hold of your ears and pockets.

    It would be so nice to see the Congress swing far, far left for a couple of election cycles, just to give the old USA the opportunity to literally turn the entire economic, ecological insanity away from all the darkness, back towards the LIGHT. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Fresh Air, Clean Water, No Fracking, No deepwater drilling, No Oil Spills, Fish re-emerging in our waters, Organic Farming with true Organic Standards, NO GMO’s in our Food Chains.

    Whew! What a nice image that is.

  • David Sheridan

    Pretty near. With the help of the presstitute media, war is no longer a political issue. Oceania has always been at war and everyone supports it.

  • Anonymous

    That would indeed be nice if we still had the Democrat Party of the early sixties. Unfortunately the current one requires a countervailing force just to keep them from totally out righting the Right !

  • David Sheridan

    Yup, only 12% of the voters turned out. Brat got a majority of that. So the votes of 7% of the electorate got this guy the nomination. This teabagger just might be beatable in the general election.

  • oldhand

    Why isn’t any press talking about the (inevitable) backfiring of Rove’s GOP district gerrymandering.the GOP created concentrated pockets of ultraconservatists to try to grab local seats because it is becoming too difficult for them to win National elections. They spent ’08 and ’10 whipping folks into a frenzy of anger, blame, and intolerance. They have alienated women, blacks, Latinos, LGBTs, and people who believe in separation of church and state. If you fuel that ideology with fear, attempt to curtail the right to vote, women’s right to control their healthcare and family planning, deny climate change, defund helping victims of natural disasters, block student loan relief, job bills, and infrastructure repair, and top it off by taking the budget hostage and winning the do-nothing Congress award…who is left but Westboro types, the Koch brothers, and assault weapon stockpilers? And though I know many republicans who find they can no longer support their own party, I don’t see that bailout among moderates, progressives, and liberals. When the Senate minority leader announces- right after 2 POTUS elections that his goal is to make sure that nothing the president wants gets passed, it seems more like treason than governing. That this man faced a primary challenge from the right just seems to prove the GOP has created a beast they can no longer control. Reason is gone; acting for the good of the nation is gone; compromise gone- replaced by extreme ideology of a bunch of old white guys who do not understand or want to understand science, biology, and the struggles of immigrants, despite their immigrant heritage. They even vote down bills and plans that came from their own party. I hope the country wakes up and realizes that the 2nd amendment was not put in place to prevent children from coming home alive at 3:30 every day.

  • JonThomas

    Another article offering readers a well rounded view not available on most of the other media outlets. Thank you!

  • Stacey Oppenheim

    Maybe this is just payback for Cantor’s betrayal of the people with his Congressional insider trading loophole.

  • Jana Barry

    Another view is that Brat got the election because “Cooter” — ( got in the fray — Vote for Brat so we can get the election when it counts

  • John Rivera-Greene

    Um…….internet voting? I see your point of making it easier. But I’d venture a guess that internet voting would be easily mainpulated.

  • rb

    This is a primary. The Democrats will easily crush this tea party unknown.

  • Anonymous

    Some state in the northeast has already started it. Or maybe a local area. But with so much on the Internet voting has to go there. This would certainly be more representative of the will of the people.

  • Anonymous

    The primary just represents those who could make it to the ballot locations.

  • Anonymous

    it is not anti-semitism at all…it is his arrogance and his constant putting his fingers in other peoples eyes (like Nuttyahoo) that caused his downfall. Good riddance. Maybe Nutty can learn a few things from what has happened here. And this is not just the REpubs, it is on both sides of the isle. The monster money that has infiltrated and paralyzed our country has got to stop. No more cake walks in front of Sheldon Adelman. No more cake walks in front of Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan. The final cake walk will be and should be in front of the American People.

  • Mitchell S. Gilbert

    Is It An Oxymoron to Be a Moderate and a Republican?

  • Anonymous

    Right you are. This is why we shouldn’t vote for any candidate of either party who kisses those asses for money. The problem is that the monied creeps usually crush those who want true democracy. I’m as far left as can be but I see hope even in the victory of this Tea Partier. Bring it on Mr. Brat, I don’t give a damn if you bow at the altar of Ayn Rand as long as you campaign, really campaign against the monied interests. Remember, politics don’t matter a bit when the oligarchs are pulling the strings.

  • g818

    I think that’s the point (minus the details) being made in #5 above.

  • Racer X

    “Only 65,000 people cast ballots last night” – how do you account for the fact that in a supposedly off-cycle year, the turnout was almost 33% higher than in 2012???

  • Tom

    Cantor lost in a year where incumbents are surviving challenges from teabaggers. Why are people so afraid to acknowledge the fact that Cantor lost because of the rampant Antisemitism among Christian Right voters who make up the vast majority of GOP primary voters?

  • Tom

    This question is interesting, but it is irrelevant. Cantor is an extreme right politician.

  • Tom

    Of course it is exclusively due to Antisemitism.b Republican primary voters are happy to see big money in politics.

  • Carolyn Kay

    Tea Party obstructionism is nothing new. From 176 years ago:

    “’Whether, sir, you did not state upon the hustings [the campaign trail], that it was your firm and determined intention to oppose everything proposed; to divide the house upon every question, to move for returns on every subject, to place a motion on the books every day, and, in short, in your own memorable words, to play the very devil with everything and everybody?’”

    – Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, 1838, words spoken by an unhappy constituent to his member of Parliament

  • gebby

    Why do the Tparty insist on Gun Carry laws and Stand your ground laws? Are they terrorizing America? Now they vote in a completely unqualified candidate that gets his economic instructions from God. T party is the American Taliban.

  • gebby

    I don’t believe the argument that democrats did not crossover.

  • Anonymous

    No, they won’t. It’s a safe Republican district.

  • Anonymous

    There was a race people were paying attention to. He offended party activists, who in turn got out their voters, and several prominent conservative talkradio hosts and bloggers were pushing Brat.

  • Anonymous

    There’s an outside chance, but it’s a safely gerrymandered, very Republican district.

  • Eliot W. Collins

    I wondered how long it would take someone to bring this up. This is the first occurrence that I have seen.

  • Racer X

    That sounds ok to me, but it is a bit more nuanced than the straight “low voter turnout” meme that I keep reading.

  • Anonymous

    Nice reminder!

    “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes

  • Anonymous

    When I am in Home Depot I don’t want someone carrying a AR15 over his shoulder exercising his freedom around me.

  • metroeco

    Also check the voting machines.

  • JC

    With only 12% voting in this primary…it’s too soon to predict what will happen in the upcoming primaries in other states. One thing is for sure….the American voting public is pissed. They are tired of a do nothing congress and politicians who spend most of their time stumping for cronies and running around the country raising money for their favorite PACs. If any message should be taken from this is that people who vote and want the middle class represented in this country want a representative government, congress people who represent the constituency instead of looking for more personal power and control.,

  • Anonymous

    the radicalized repub base will continue to push their candidates to the right…and some of them will be elected.

    general trends and recent national elections show the majority is moving in the opposite direction.

    this can only bode well for reasonable people

  • JC

    Right Wing Republicans always implode when they’re under stress…….

  • Anonymous

    It seems possible, even likely, that a significant number of his constituants finally started to see him as the arrogant, smug, self-rightous prick that the rest of the nation already did.

  • bfg

    The first thing to learn from the Cantor defeat is that there is no such thing as a safe district. Anything can happen.

  • bfg

    One of the first rules of politics is that people vote for candidates they find likable. Reagan won Democrats because they thought he was a nice guy. Nobody is his right mind could have that opinion of Eric Cantor.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

    You deserve a standing ovation for that. Brilliantly put!

  • Anonymous

    I think the whole “Cantor stuck his finger into the eyes of party activists” thing is the main takeaway. Joe Lieberman did the same thing to the Dem base. The only difference is that VA has a sore loser law that prevents Cantor from running as an “independent Republican.”

  • Anonymous

    Get real…No poll has found public support for granting legal status and work permits to unauthorized aliens before prevention measures are in place, i.e. a secure border. Today the border is porous.

    Constituents want border security, an end to chain migration, an end to birthright citizenship, and NO amnesty.

  • Anonymous

    Then how did Cantor ever get elected?

  • HopeWFaith

    Nobody in his right mind could have truly believed Reagan, but sooooo many did. What a fiasco that turned out to be for the middle and poorer classes. The facts cannot be changed. He took from the middle class and the poor and gave it to the upper crust. The sickening events have continued through today, in that same vein. The right wing knows that people are easily swayed with their commercials on tv, and the right brain washing lies, in the news. The pattern continues today, with profoundly solid results for that Party. The only hope we have right now, is to genuinely sway a solid Democrat to go far, far out of her/his way to Stand with The People, and not to be bendable in that commitment. But what candidate can do that? I only trust two right now. Sanders and Warren. But we desperately need their fighting strength inside the Congress. Probably both are more able to help us there. God help the United States. We need truly ethical people in Congress. “Where have all the flowers gone?”

  • ColorsOfAlgebra

    “You deserve a standing ovation for that. Brilliantly put!” I’m standing. Thank you for permission to share description of behaviour that leaves us dumbfounded, like in a nightmare.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a good question: “CAN theological types handle usury and capitalism” (at the same time, as in, usury bad; capitalism good)?