Eric Cantor’s Unusually Expensive, Surprisingly Negative Primary Campaign

The House majority leader went negative on his little-known, underfunded opponent, showing how much the power of incumbency has waned.

Cantor: Pro-repeal spinner.
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
June 9, 2014, 5:30 p.m.

When the House ma­jor­ity lead­er spends mil­lions of dol­lars on a reelec­tion cam­paign — es­pe­cially against a little-known polit­ic­al novice who is not con­sidered a ser­i­ous threat — the na­tion­al me­dia are sure to no­tice.

That’s not be­cause Rep. Eric Can­tor’s chal­lenger, Ran­dolph-Ma­con Col­lege eco­nom­ics pro­fess­or Dave Brat, has be­gun to show some un­ex­pec­ted mo­mentum. Quite the con­trary: Can­tor’s cam­paign spokes­man is right when he says his boss is “well-known, well-liked, and well-re­spec­ted” in his dis­trict. And he’s cer­tainly ex­pec­ted to win.

In­stead, the con­test has drawn such out­size at­ten­tion in large part be­cause of the ef­fort Can­tor felt he had to pump in­to it, run­ning hard for the kind of safe seat party lead­ers once could take for gran­ted. And for that he can thank im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

In­deed, Can­tor has ex­pen­ded un­usu­al ef­fort (and funds) against a seem­ingly harm­less op­pon­ent, go­ing to the trouble of run­ning neg­at­ive TV ads and send­ing mail­ers de­fend­ing his po­s­i­tion on im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion after Brat suc­cess­fully dir­ec­ted the de­bate away from loc­al jobs and to­ward a na­tion­al is­sue.

It’s yet an­oth­er piece of evid­ence that nom­in­at­ing con­tests are no longer com­pletely friendly ter­rit­ory for Wash­ing­ton op­er­at­ors. While party lead­ers used to rule over loc­al polit­ics while deal­ing with messy le­gis­lat­ive saus­age-mak­ing in Wash­ing­ton, they are now get­ting in­to the mud with in­creas­ing fre­quency at the loc­al level.

For in­stance, Can­tor’s cam­paign re­ferred to Brat as a “lib­er­al col­lege pro­fess­or,” which FactCheck.org called “mis­lead­ing.” Plus, Can­tor sent mail­ers to voters say­ing that he was work­ing to stop “the Obama-Re­id plan to give il­leg­al ali­ens am­nesty” des­pite his own sup­port for a path to leg­al­iz­a­tion for chil­dren brought to the coun­try il­leg­ally. 

Brat cam­paign spokes­man Al­len Wag­n­er ac­cused Can­tor of mis­lead­ing voters by sup­port­ing that meas­ure while his ads said he op­poses am­nesty. “He won’t stand on his re­cord,” Wag­n­er said.

But Can­tor cam­paign spokes­man Ray Al­len said the cam­paign wanted to fo­cus less on im­mig­ra­tion and more on job cre­ation, but that con­ser­vat­ive news sites, like The Daily Caller and Breit­bart.com, covered the race’s im­mig­ra­tion angle closely, call­ing at­ten­tion to it for the pur­pose of at­tack­ing a GOP party lead­er. 

Can­tor’s cam­paign may have hit a low point in May, as it re­spon­ded to Brat’s im­mig­ra­tion at­tacks — and as Can­tor failed to get a friend elec­ted as chair­man of the dis­trict Re­pub­lic­an Party. The Wash­ing­ton Post de­scribed the race as “open war­fare” with the tea party. But Al­len said epis­odes like that were ul­ti­mately a dis­trac­tion from the is­sues that will drive loc­al voters to the primary polls and res­ult in an­oth­er reelec­tion for Can­tor.

“The glit­ter­ati doesn’t want to talk about those [eco­nom­ic] is­sues,” Al­len said, “be­cause it doesn’t view them as sexy.”

Can­tor’s team dis­misses sug­ges­tions that Can­tor is run­ning harder than he needs to, or has be­fore. Al­len said the cam­paign has mostly op­er­ated nor­mally, not­ing the No. 2 House Re­pub­lic­an runs ads each cycle.

And at least one out­side group that has opened its check­book for Can­tor agreed. The Amer­ic­an Chem­istry Coun­cil spent more than $300,000 sup­port­ing Can­tor, which is among the lar­ger ex­pendit­ures by a single group in a primary this elec­tion cycle, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics. But ACC spokes­wo­man Anne Kolton said the group first star­ted run­ning ads sup­port­ing Can­tor in Au­gust 2011 and that it reg­u­larly runs ads that sup­port people and policies that are fa­vor­able to the man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dustry. “It’s not dis­sim­il­ar from the work that we do throughout the elec­tion cycle,” Kolton said.

But Can­tor has cer­tainly spent more heav­ily this time around — about a mil­lion dol­lars between April 1 and May 21. By com­par­is­on, in 2012, when Can­tor won reelec­tion with 79 per­cent of the vote, he spent $746,000.

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