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Eric Cantor's Untended Fences

The House majority leader’s loss is a reminder of the old political adage: There are two ways to run—scared and unopposed.


Stunning upset: Brat(AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, P. Kevin Morley)

While surprises are not that infrequent in politics, rarely is there one as shocking as Eric Cantor's primary loss to Randolph-Macon College economist Dave Brat in Virginia's 7th District. No House majority leader has ever before lost a primary election, and Cantor's defeat is the most stunning primary upset of a congressional incumbent in anyone's memory. Previous top leadership losses—such as those of House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994, House Majority Whip John Brademas in 1980, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004—were all in general elections.

No one ever suggested to any of us at The Cook Political Report that Cantor might actually lose reelection. Although the spending in the last couple of months (more than $5 million this cycle) and the harsh, even reckless negative ads aired by the Cantor campaign in the closing weeks showed it was not completely asleep, his polls never revealed that the race was tightening. 


Cantor's campaign had released a poll conducted for it by John McLaughlin on May 27 and 28 that showed him with a 34-point lead. The predicted breakdown was 62 percent to 28 percent—27 percentage points too low for Brat, 17 points too generous for Cantor. In fairness, screening for likely voters in a June primary is not the easiest of chores, particularly in GOP primaries in this tea-party era. Still, the turnout was not unusually low; it was roughly double the Democratic turnout in Virginia's 8th District primary to succeed Rep. Jim Moran and was substantially higher than the 2012 presidential primary turnout. 

With higher turnouts, polls tend to get more accurate, not less, and a lower turnout, if that is what McLaughlin expected, would not necessarily have benefited Cantor, who spent little on get-out-the-vote activities. In short, polling doesn't get much "wronger" than this.

Shocking election results rarely have a single cause, and this instance is no exception. Clearly, the biggest single policy issue was immigration, which seemed to dominate coverage in the final days. Conservative websites like The Daily Caller were pounding Cantor on immigration, and a rally in the closing days of the campaign that featured conservative commentator Laura Ingraham reportedly attracted 500 people. What is instructive about this is that Cantor's positions were fairly middle-of-the-road; he didn't embrace comprehensive immigration reform along the lines of the Senate bill. This will serve as a warning signal, not only to all Republican candidates this year but to 2016 presidential hopefuls as well, that the immigration issue hasn't changed that much since 2012, when Mitt Romney used demagoguery to thwart Gov. Rick Perry's rise.


But Cantor's defeat wasn't just about immigration. A heavy dose of generic tea-party, anti-Washington sentiment seemed to be at work as well. Although Cantor is conservative by any rational standard, he is also a certified member of the Washington and Republican congressional leadership establishment. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell successfully dealt with some of the same dynamics in his primary, but he still must confront this danger in the general election. 

If a large swath of voters—disproportionately conservative and Republican—hates the ways of Washington, as well as how Congress does (or doesn't) do its business, then an incumbent who is one of the three or four most powerful leaders can face big trouble. In short, "If we hate Congress, we must hate you most of all."

And it should be noted that some of Cantor's ads possibly contributed to his defeat. His campaign unleashed some pretty scurrilous attacks on Brat for being a "liberal college professor." Serving on a board of economists advising state government on economic projections for Virginia while it happened to have a Democratic governor (Tim Kaine) hardly makes you a liberal college professor. Such an attack erodes the stature and credibility of the candidate who sponsors the ad; these ads come across as reckless and desperate. It's about time we start seeing some accountability for some of the worst of the negative ads that are polluting our airwaves. I hope we see this more often.

On a more foundational level, the higher on the totem poll that members of the House and Senate get, and the longer they are in office, the greater the temptation to take voters back home for granted. Once, after an entrenched House committee chairman lost reelection, someone from his district mentioned that the congressman used to attend and campaign at a county fair every year, but he had stopped coming in recent years. Elected officials need to be all over their states—or else. 


Like the old political adage says, there are two ways to run: scared and unopposed. Incumbents who are targeted early on usually have already gotten the message. I don't recall ever seeing a surprising upset of an incumbent who had been assiduously tending political fences and visiting with constituents regularly. On The Bull Elephant blog, Virginia tea-party activist Jamie Radtke cited a meeting five years ago with top Cantor adviser Ray Allen, at which he recalls the latter saying, "Eric Cantor will never hold a town-hall meeting. Over my dead body! You hear me?"

Town meetings are increasingly painful for members of Congress, but they do serve a purpose. They allow incumbents to connect with voters in a raw, unfiltered way.

Partisanship and ideology have become pervasive in this town. Over a couple of meals and informal exchanges, I found Cantor to be very bright and highly competent, and in private very candid. He truly understands the challenges facing his party in the future. 

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Today, that and five bucks will get him a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

This article appears in the June 14, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Untended Fences.

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