Why Did GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor Lose His Primary?



Eric Cantor's primary loss last night took Washington by surprise. Almost no one saw it coming, not even Cantor. Throughout the campaign, the Republican House Majority Leader, who represents Virginia's seventh congressional district, denied there was any chance he would lose. He apparently seemed jovial and "happy-go-lucky" at a big-ticket fundraiser just yesterday morning, like someone who'd just seen news that his victory was assured, according to a source of Breitbart's Jonathan Strong.

Cantor certainly took the race seriously enough, at least in terms of cash—he placed ads on Fox News in his district, and outspent opponent Dave Brat by a huge margin, paying more just for steakhouse dinners than Brat spent on his entire campaign. Somehow, he still lost.

A successful primary challenge to a leadership candidate is incredibly rare. The last time a House majority leader was taken out in a primary was…well, there was no last time. It's never happened before. The position was created in 1899.

Because Cantor's primary loss was such a rare and unexpected event, there's no single ready explanation for what happened. Instead, there are a handful of competing narratives singling out Cantor's stance on immigration, his distance from his district's concerns, and his coziness with big business interests. Here are four possible explanations for Cantor's unexpected loss. 

It was about immigration reform and "amnesty": This is the argument you'll likely hear most often. As Strong writes, the story of the surprise loss "starts, and almost ends, with immigration." Much of the Republican base—the people who turn out for primaries—is dead set against any attempt to reform the immigration system in a way that legalizes current immigrants, and Cantor was seen by many as favoring those efforts. Brat, an economics professor, was a staunch opponent of recent immigration overhaul proposals, saying that bringing more people into the country would "increase the labor supply—and by doing so, lower wage rates for the working person. He charged Cantor with supporting "amnesty"—calling him "the number one cheerleader in Congress for amnesty"—a charge that Cantor denied in campaign fliers.

There's a counterargument here, however, a big part of which that Cantor was actually the member of GOP leadership least supportive of immigration reform. As The Washington Post's Greg Sargent argues, Cantor could better be described as an obstacle to passing an immigration overhaul; Cantor pushed for a vote to legalize DREAM act eligible immigrants as a way to allow the GOP to look gentler on immigrants without actually having to pass wholesale immigration reform. And one poll by Public Policy Polling (PPP)—which, yes, describes immigration reform in a rosy way and does not present potential tradeoffs—found that overall Cantor's district supports immigration reform.

It was about big business, crony capitalism, and corporate welfare: Brat made this a major theme of his insurgent campaign against the majority leader. Back in April, Politico reported Brat saying that "if you're in big business, Eric's been very good to you, and he gets a lot of donations because of that, right? Very powerful. Very good at fundraising because he favors big business. But when you're favoring artificially big business, someone's paying the tab for that. Someone's paying the price for that, and guess who that is? You."

Brat hammered Cantor for corporatist tendencies and big business connections in speeches. You can watch one in full here (via Zaid Jilani): 

It was about local-level constituent service: One thing is pretty clear—Cantor's district, as a whole, didn't much like him. In the PPP poll mentioned earlier, 63 percent of residents said they disapproved of the job that Cantor was doing in Congress, while just 30 percent approved. This is a district that leans heavily GOP and has voted for Cantor since 2001. But some reports suggest that locals were increasingly frustrated with Cantor's ambitious climb up the GOP leadership ladder, believing that it made Cantor a worse representative of local interests. As Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote in his report on the loss, "Cantor's maneuvering on immigration was illustrative of a larger issue: 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."

Political writer Robert Tracinski, who lives in Cantor's district, makes a similar point in a piece for The Federalist:

It's a strongly Republican district that spans across a very conservative stretch of rural Central Virginia, from the Richmond suburbs to Culpeper. So what were we going to do, vote for a Democrat? No, we were going to vote for Cantor.

And Cantor knew it. Because he didn't have to worry too much about getting re-elected every two years, his political ambition was channeled into rising through the hierarchy of the House leadership. Rise he did, all the way up to the #2 spot, and he was waiting in the wings to become Speaker of the House.

The result was that Cantor's real constituency wasn't the folks back home. His constituency was the Republican leadership and the Republican establishment. That's who he really answered to.

It was about reform conservatism: Cantor recently appeared at a big confab hosted by the American Enterprise Institute on Room to Grow, the YG Network's new book of conservative reform proposals, which leads Vox's Ezra Klein to argue that Cantor's loss is bad news this brand of wonkier, policy-pushing conservatism: "Cantor, a founding member of the 'Young Guns,' was one of reform conservatism's patron saints. His loss suggests reform conservatism doesn't have much of a constituency, even among Republican primary voters. The Republican base, at least in Cantor's district, isn't in the mood for technocratic solutionism. It's still angry, and it still believes that any accommodation is too much accommodation."

My guess is that it's mostly some combination of the first three—that immigration anger played a role, that Brat's arguments about corporate connections resonated, and that part of the reason they resonated is that residents of Cantor's district felt like he had creature of Republican leadership rather than a representative of Virginia's seventh district. But given how unexpected this was to practically everyone, I don't have too much confidence in any of the explanations. If it was clear and obvious, then more people would have seen it coming. 

Update: A few more possibilities… 

Democrats staged an operation chaos to give Cantor the boot: That's the theory offered by Cantor's pollster, John McLaughlin, who last week found that Cantor had a 34-point lead. Turnout for this primary was unusually high, and in an email to National Journal, McLaughlin suggests that the surge may have been the result of Democratic meddling. "Untold story," McLaughlin wrote, "is who were the new primary voters? They were probably not Republicans." 

Virginia Republicans didn't want to vote for Cantor because he's Jewish: David Wasserman, an elections analyst for the Cook Political report, tells The New York Times that religion was a factor: "Part of this plays into his religion," Mr. Wasserman told the Times. "You can't ignore the elephant in the room." The problem with this explanation is that it doesn't explain why that became an issue now. Cantor's religion has never been an issue in his district before.