By Jerry Zremski
WASHINGTON -- It's never happened before. Never in the past has a top House leader gone down to defeat in a primary.
But that's just what happened Tuesday night to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. In a loss that's likely to reverberate through American politics for months if not years to come, Cantor fell to a tea party challenger, the ironically named David Brat, by a shocking 11 point margin.
What does it all mean? After hearing what sources have to say and after trying to fit this into the larger dynamics roiling American politics, here are my five takeaways:
1) All politics is local. The late Tip O'Neill famously said that when he was House speaker three decades ago, and it's still true today. Eric Cantor proved it be being as profoundly not local as any member of Congress. Whereas most lawmakers win the loyalty of their constituents by traveling their districts on a weekly basis, Cantor toured the country on a near-weekly basis, raising money for colleagues whom he thought could help him become speaker someday. And on primary day, while Brat was busy campaigning, Cantor was busy in Washington, returning to his Richmond-based district only at night for his supposed victory party. As RedState.com blogger Erick Erickson said: "Cantor lost his race because he was running for Speaker of the House of Representatives while his constituents wanted a congressman."
2) All politics is transactional. In other words, every politician is only as good as the relationships he or she builds. And in the end, Cantor didn't build the right kind of deep, enduring relationships within the Virginia GOP that could have helped him in Tuesday's fight. That's because he's the type that tends to rise and fall fast in politics, in business and even in journalism: Someone who's smart and strong enough to create a great first impression, but whose cutthroat ways wear people out over time. According to Republicans and Democrats alike, that's just what Cantor and his people did. Former Rep. John J. LaFalce, who served with both Cantor and Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., noted on Facebook this morning the key reason why Graham fended off his tea party challengers while Cantor lost. "Lindsey is extremely likeable, the most important quality for any candidate to have. Enuf said."
3) It's harder to be a local congressman these days. In Cantor's defense, he couldn't shower his district with federal money, which is what congressmen did for decades to win the loyalty of their constituents. But that was before the Republican House banned "earmarks," the pork-barrel budget items that always made local lawmakers look like heroes in earlier, less budget-conscious times. So Cantor's constituents would get no chance to see him cutting the ribbon on a new bridge or putting a shovel in the ground where a new federal facility would be built. Thanks to the GOP's own rules, lawmakers can't bring home the bacon anymore. They can't even bring home bacon bits -- and that fact hurts at election time.
4) Polls and ads don't matter the way they used to. Two internal polls showed Cantor up in the race by double-digit margins -- but those polls didn't reflect the electorate that decided to vote on Tuesday. Therein lies a lesson for every political operative in the country. With the nation so deeply split now between liberals and conservatives, and with so few independents in the middle, winning an election is now much more about turning out your troops than it is changing minds -- and if you doubt that, take a look at Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns. For that reason, polls -- which poorly reflect voter intensity -- are increasingly unreliable. So are high-priced television ads, just because there are comparatively few minds to change. Cantor proved that, flooding the airwaves to no apparent positive effect and fielding a "nonexistent" turnout effort while Brat just worked the tea party circuit to get his supporters to the polls on primary day.
5) Everybody will overreact to this. House Republicans, fearing that they could fall victim to a tea party wave, too, will be afraid to do any real legislating for God knows how long, knowing that any vote they cast can be held against them. That's particularly true on immigration reform, given that Brat portrayed Cantor as a supporter of "amnesty" for undocumented aliens. Tea party activists will overreact, too, thinking that if they could topple a giant like Cantor, they can topple anybody -- meaning many more such challenges will be likely in 2016. And pundits will overreact, too, sensing a national tea party wave when this is really just one shocking primary in one very conservative Virginia district.