Since everyone is a bona fide political analyst these days,
there will be a plethora of explanations of why Republican
U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost the nomination
for re-election in his Virginia district in his own party primary.
I would like to suggest that the loss, while a real one obviously
for Mr. Cantor personally and his leadership colleagues in the
U.S. house, just might be a net plus for his political party.
The primary issue as the provocation for his defeat was
clearly his leadership role in proposed immigration reform.
Mr. Cantor won his primary in 2012 with more than 70% of the
vote, and had for years enjoyed broad GOP support in his
district, including among the very groups who appeared to
turn against him this time. Since immigration reform was the
major issue for most of these latter GOP voters, it is inescapable
to avoid the conclusion that immigration reform was the
“catalyst” in this political story.
First, let me repeat what I have consistently written in recent
years: I strongly support immigration reform, and I oppose
any notion of blanket returning current “illegal” immigrants to
their nation of origin (but illegal criminal immigrants should
be expelled). The 10 million-plus “illegals” currently living in
the U.S. should be given a legal status, and be required to pay
taxes, and to observe all the other rules of those who legally
live in this country. At the same time, I strongly support a
massive overhaul of border control, and effective measures to
stop any more illegal immigration now. Furthermore, conferring
legal status should not mean instant or even quick citizenship
This was similar, I thought, to the intentions of the U.S. house
leadership, including John Boehner and Eric Cantor, in their
continuing quest to fashion a reasonable, fair and prudent
reform of U.S. immigration policy. I favor immigration reform,
but I also recognize the responsibility of political leaders to
persuade voters that reform is good and necessary.
The problem with Boehner and Cantor, despite other
excellent leadership qualities, has been their less-than-stellar
public communications on this and other issues, thus often
isolating themselves not only from members of their own
caucus in the U.S. house, but also with significant numbers of
grass roots voters in their own party across the nation.
So-called “tea party” activists and voters have often been
identified by an unsympathetic liberal media as the “culprits”
in the current divisions in the Republican Party, and at the
outset of the 2014 mid-term election campaign, this media
attempted to exacerbate GOP voter disagreements into a
successful insurrection against the party “establishment,”
thus making conservative success at the polls in November,
2014 less likely (as happened in some U.S. senate races in 2010
In the primary season so far, this for the most part has NOT
happened. Particularly, in competitive 2014 U.S. senate races,
Republican and conservative voters across the country have
resisted the impulse to nominate ultimately weak candidates.
In fact, on the same day that Mr. Cantor lost, Lindsay Graham
of South Carolina won his primary with more than 50% of the
vote. Senator Graham has been criticized by some activists for
not being conservative enough. In Mississippi, incumbent GOP
Senator Thad Cochran, similarly criticized, has been forced
into a run-off against a “tea party” conservative opponent,
and might lose the nomination as a result, but his opponent
would still be the favorite to keep the seat in Republican hands
in that very conservative state.
Democrats and their media friends, of course, would like the
Cantor defeat to re-ignite the “tea party” revolution, and divide
the Republican Party. One issue that might have helped do this
was trying to force immigration reform in Congress before the
mid-term elections. This issue is no longer on the table after
Mr. Cantor’s defeat, and thus might be a silver lining for the GOP.
Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor both led their caucus into abandoning
another government shutdown, another refusal to raise the
debt ceiling, and more fruitless attempts to repeal Obamacare,
so that the 2014 election could be a national referendum on
President Obama, his administration and his policies.
Their success with this, however, was followed by a curious
determination to force through immigration reform before the
2014 election, thus risking turning off some valuable grass roots
support. Whether one agrees with them or not, a number of
conservative voters have serious questions about immigration
reform, especially reform designed by the Democrats. Boehner and
Cantor did not made clear the difference between their idea of
reform and the liberals’ version of it. Conservative resistance
has been loud and ongoing, including in Cantor’s district. The
responsibility for Eric Cantor’s defeat is thus his own. Probably,
his leadership role has caused him and his political advisers to
lose touch with his district. There is really no other credible
explanation for a popular and genuinely conservative incumbent
to lose his own party re-nomination by such a wide margin.
Candidly, “tea party” voters needed at least one notable victory
in this election cycle, and now they have it. If Republican leaders
are skillful, they will not panic, but learn from Mr. Cantor’s
political mistakes, and move on to the election ahead. As I have
said many times, the “Tea Party” arose on legitimate economic
grievances. A few of them now are show-offs or have tried to
take the tea party movement in non-eonomic dirctions, but if the
Republican Party wants to succeed in 2014 and 2016, it cannot
afford to turn these conservative voters off and away.
The primary season is now almost over. Most Republican
incumbents have made efforts to appeal to the various factions
in their party, and most GOP challengers this year, especially
in competitive U.S. senate races, are outstanding. Eric Cantor’s
loss might well be the exception that demonstrates the rule that
this is a year with voter momentum that rejects administration
policies in Washington, DC.
Only if the Republican leadership fails to continue its attempts
to integrate all of its grass roots voter support, need the defeat
of Eric Cantor be more than just a curious historical footnote.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.