No doubt the pundit class will have lots to say about why Cantor lost. The immediate reaction was to blame his perceived support for immigration reform. But if true, then Graham (a.k.a. Gramnesty) should also have lost. Others have blamed the “anti-Washington” mood around the country. However, incumbents have been quite successful in fending off challengers with just a couple of exceptions. Moreover, there does not seem to be any “anti-Washington” mood when it comes to Democrats.Perhaps the most interesting explanation, thus far, has come from Cantor’s pollster. According to John McLaughlin, Democrats took advantage of Virginia’s open primary system to vote for the Tea Party candidate. It could be. There was an open letter by a former Cantor opponent urging Democrats, independents and Libertarians to support David Brat. On the other hand, Cantor’s pollster released a poll about a week before primary day showing his client cruising to an easy victory . McLaughlin has every reason to blame some nefarious plan whether real or not.
If I were to guess, I would say that Cantor lost for two reasons. First, there is a high level of distrust between the GOP activists and the party leadership; and, second, the Tea Party candidate presented a plausible alternative.
The grassroots frustration with the GOP establishment has been growing for years. I wrote about it a few months ago. To summarize my argument, the Tea Party exists because the GOP leadership failed to deliver on fiscal responsibility, limited government when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House.
Instead of trying to close the trust gap, the GOP establishment decided to strong arm the Tea Party into submission. Instead of offering new faces and approaches, the GOP in DC decided to serve up the same failed leadership that contributed to our appalling national debt and increased federal programs.
It is the same failed leadership that allowed talk radio and outside groups to demonize the immigration issue to the point that the environment is so poisoned that any reform effort is quickly derailed. Whispers that the House would attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform as soon as the primary season was over only added to the distrust and frustration.
Until last Tuesday, the GOP establishment’s strategy for dealing with the Tea Party seemed to be paying off. Incumbents easily defeated their underfunded opponents. Establishment backed candidates topped the polls. It wasn’t that the GOP establishment tactics were so brilliant; nothing brilliant about brute force. Rather, it was because the Tea Party just did not offer credible alternatives.
Take South Carolina, for example. Graham is the ultimate RINO. He openly and forcefully supports immigration reform. He has been a member of the Gang of Fourteen, the Gang of Eight and has the bad habit (sarc) of reaching across the aisle. Graham embodies everything the grassroots detest about Washington. Yet, he was able to triumph over his opponents because none offered a viable alternative. That’s the key difference between Virginia 7th Congressional District and South Carolina. As a university professor, economist, David Brat was able to go beyond parroting talk radio talking points.
With new found energy, the Tea Party is off trying to score another victory. Most likely in Mississippi where, once again, an establishment candidate is facing a plausible alternative. Whether or not the Tea Party scores more victories is less important now that it has Cantor’s scalp and the Republican leadership is running scared. The only thing that died Tuesday night was the media’s narrative about the Tea Party’s demise .