Eric Cantor fell last week. He lost the Republican primary to David Brat, an obscure Economics Professor from Randolph Macon College, despite outspending him by at least ten times. His incumbency, his position as House Majority Leader, his prodigious fundraising ability, and his power did him absolutely no good.
He fell alone, seemingly without friends. Perhaps he had none. Before his political corpse was cold, his colleagues in the House were scrambling to replace him as House Majority Leader.
As of this writing, Kevin McCarthy, the affable chief House Whip, seems to have enough votes to replace Cantor, although Idaho’s hard right Raul Labrador (among the hawkish of hawks on immigration) wants to challenge him. The machinery of party politics marches on. But in the quiet offices where power is wielded and strategy set (and especially in the press that reports on them) there has been a certain amount of confusion and concern.
Cantor wasn’t Dick Lugar of Indiana or Bob Bennett of Utah, older Senators who were unexpectedly ambushed by Tea Party candidates, or even 72-year-old Thad Cochran of Mississippi, currently forced into a runoff. The Teas haven’t had the greatest success in this election cycle, as older incumbent Republicans largely came forewarned and forearmed. Yet Cantor, only 51, and in all likelihood the heir apparent to Boehner when he retires, will be looking for work in January.
So, how the heck did this happen?
Let’s start with the obvious. First, the Tea Party might be a little bruised, but they aren’t dead. This despite the fondest wishes of some of the GOP establishment (and, if they were smart, Democrats who are actually interested in seeing government work instead of just government.) Given the right environment and the right candidate (or candidates) there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t continue to win, or at the very least, throw a scare into their opposition. Plenty of states remain fertile ground for their movement. Texas has largely gone Tea, and several others, including Kansas and Oklahoma, are so conservative that it’s probably irrelevant. Tea Party energy can still bring out the votes.
Second, gerrymandering really matters. To measure partisanship, political scientists use the Cook Partisan Voting Index to see where any Congressional District lies politically in comparison to the rest of the country. You calculate PVI by comparing the district's average partisan share of the two-party presidential vote in the past two presidential elections to the nation's average share of the same. To make that clearer, if Obama averaged a 52% share over his two elections nationally, but a particular Congressional District went for Obama by 57%, it would be a D+5.
That doesn’t make election a certainty, you need to throw in additional idiosyncratic factors such as the value of incumbency and personal popularity, but the larger analysis still holds. A Congressional District that’s rated “D+5” would be expected to yield about a 5% edge over the national trend to the Democrat in the election. He could still lose in a wave year, or because of a gaffe or some personal scandal, but the probabilities are in his favor. Of course, politicians don’t like “probable” when it comes to job security. They like certainty. If D+5 sounds good, D+10 sounds better.
That is where the mapmakers come in. Getting from swing to D+5 to D+10 is simply a function of the mapmaker’s creativity, and state legislatures control redistricting. More accurately, the party that controls the state legislature is the one that controls redistricting. Usually, redistricting is done after a national census, to reflect the changes in the state’s Congressional allocation, but it doesn’t have to be. Texas did a massive redistricting in 2003 that flipped the delegation’s partisan tilt on its head.
Politicians do this because it works. Per Cook’s report, since 1998, the number of D+5 to R+5 Congressional Districts has dropped from 164 to 90. Boehner owes his majority to redistricting (the Democrats actually won the aggregate national congressional vote)--but there is a potentially toxic side effect. The “safer” your district is, the more insulated you get from any ideas other than your own. And “safer” can be an illusion, because being “more Republican” or “more Democratic” may just mean you are enhancing the power of the ideological activists--the ones most likely to vote in a primary or show up in a caucus or convention. They are also the ones most likely to demand fealty.
Historically, incumbents didn’t care if zealous folk showed up on primary day, because the two-party system was the only game in town. So, you pander a bit to the fire-eaters to make them feel good, and then, if you think you have any chance of being in an even competitive race, tack back to the center a bit. Incumbents just were never considered endangered from within. One of the few primary upsets of the order of magnitude of Cantor’s loss was in 1972 when Elizabeth Holtzman defeated Emmanuel Celler, a fifty-year veteran of the House and powerful Chair of the Judiciary Committee. Celler never saw it coming. Only in hindsight did some of the same issues that plagued Cantor (too much power, too little concern for the needs at home) emerge.
So, why worry? Cantor apparently didn’t, at least initially. He didn’t perceive the possibility of a viable challenge from the right. In fact, his people were more concerned that his fairly safe R District could trend Bluer (or at least Purple, as Virginia as a whole was.) So, at the time of redistricting, and looking at longer-term viability, they pushed to add even more conservative voters from an adjoining, very conservative county, while subtracting votes from more liberal Richmond precincts. The plan worked--the district is currently rated R+10, which is pretty impregnable in all but the most extreme circumstances. Provided, however, that you get the nomination.
In this, Cantor stumbled. He had never been particularly good at connecting on a personal level. Pretty much all the “professional” qualities that made him effective (although disliked) in Washington did him absolutely no good back at home among primary voters. His power became a handicap because he was perceived as loving Washington and the game too much, and his District too little. His connections to the financial services industry just showed him in the pockets of the bankers (which would have been fine for your father’s GOP, but is decidedly less attractive to the more populist Tea Party types.) Cantor had blocked immigration reform, but even the smallest hint that he was in league with Facebook and the tech industry to bring in highly skilled immigrants touched off the anti-immigration forces. David Brat suddenly became a little bit of a cause célèbre. Fox loved him, as did the network of conservative talk-show hosts. Laura Ingram parachuted in and wowed them.
So, last Tuesday, when that thin slice of his constituency, all gerrymandered, radicalized, and distilled, looked at Eric Cantor, they saw a stranger, not someone to give their loyalty to. It wasn’t even close.
There are few people who will mourn Cantor. Certainly I won’t—his cold-blooded machinations sabotaged some efforts at bipartisanship. But the idea that smaller and smaller segments of the voting population should be choosing a greater and greater number of the people who lead us—that worries me a lot.
Government without accountability, whether from the Right or the Left, leads inevitably to abuse.
That’s my lament.
June 16, 2014
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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