The Republican majority leader just lost an open primary in a largely conservative district. Last time something like this happened was, correct me if I’m wrong, 1899…
The race will be analyzed for weeks to come. As the post-op commences, here are three things to remember:
1 – Leadership Style Matters
Congressman Cantor was not known for an open and inclusive leadership style. Whether on Capitol Hill or in his district, the congressman did not generally invite dialogue with those who differed from him. He eschewed townhalls and was widely perceived as thumbing his nose at grassroots Republicans, while spending plenty of time on the national television circuit. This year, he sent his consultant on a well funded (although unscucessful) campaign to capture control of the Republican Party of Virginia’s State Central Committee, and his tactics really angered base conservatives.
It is perhaps useful to contrast Cantor’s style with that of the more recently elected Rob Whitman, who cruised to an easy victory today. While Wittman’s votes also do not completely please the most conservative Republicans in his district, he is always willing to engage constituents. I’ve been at more than a few meetings where Wittman has stayed for an extended period of time just to talk with the grassroots. He’s accessible and he never comes across as arrogant – at least in my experience. Just this past weekend, one of Wittman’s constituents was telling me that her Congressman always respects your position and genuinely listens even when he doesn’t end up agreeing with you. That’s a lessen every office-holder should learn from.
2 – The Tea Party Isn’t Dead
This one will be said over and over again, but it bears mentioning. For years, Cantor and Linwood Cobb have tightly controlled the party apparatus in the 7th. In the process, they excited strong opposition from many of the people whom Republicans typically rely on for volunteer support. They substituted money for a significant amount of volunteer support and that worked – until now. Grassroots Republicans choose Fred Gruber to represent them on the State Central Committee last month, and they spoke again today.
The only reason Cantor was vulnerable – and far more vulnerable than many of us imagined – is because some of his most conservative and libertarian constituents believed their principles would be better advanced by someone, perhaps anyone, other than the majority leader as their Congressman. They acted with very little in the way of resources and were willing to risk making the 7th a competitive district rather than continue with the status quo.
3 – The Democrats Capitalized on Opportunity
If the Tea Party is the reason Dave Brat had a chance against Cantor, it seems likely that he owes his nomination to Democrats smelling blood in the water. On Friday, the Huffington Post ran a story encouraging disruptive Democratic involvement in today’s primary. Reports on social media and even in the comment section here on Bearing Drift indicate that’s exactly what happened.
Why? Well, they could. Virginia primaries are completely open. Those of us who think that Republicans should choose Republican nominees (and non-Republican citizens should have their say in the general election) have long opposed using open primaries to choose our nominees. We’ve been told that Democratic involvement in open primaries is so very minimal that we shouldn’t worry about it. Yet, open primaries invite the exact type of disruptive activity we saw today. The same activity to which Brat seems to owe this nomination.
Ed Gillespie convincingly won in the state convention on Saturday. Cantor lost in today’s open primary. The difference? While Ed is hardly known as a grassroots champion and is, in many ways, the ultimate Washington insider, he worked hard to reach out to Republican activists of every stripe and gained significant tea party support. Needless to say, that wasn’t Cantor’s approach.
It’s hard to over-state how huge this upset this is. While some of his votes left many conservatives disappointed, Eric Cantor has been a more conservative voice than many in GOP leadership. It is quite likely that his loss will actually move House leadership in a LESS conservative direction. Yet his reticence to dialogue with grassroots Republicans in his district, combined with a nominating process that allowed Democrats to involve themselves in the selection of the Republican nominee, left him vulnerable. The voters have spoken and now it is time for all Republicans to unite behind our nominee, David Brat, and ensure 8 out of 11 Virginia congressional districts remain in the GOP column.