Takeaways from Tuesday’s surprise in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor became the highest-ranking incumbent to surrender his seat since then-House Speaker Tom Foley was ousted in the 1994 GOP landslide.
1) Polls Can Be Blurry Snapshots. As recently as three days before the actual vote, polls had Cantor receiving 52%, to only 39% for David Brat, a Randolph-Macon College economist and Tuesday’s victor. The incumbent lost by over 10% (in 1994, Foley lost by less than 2%). Here’s one thing the prognosticators might have missed: low turnout/late surge. Add the totals for Brat and Cantor and it comes out a little over 64,000 votes – roughly one-twelfth the district’s population. However, Cantor’s pollsters told reporters that it was a larger turnout than they expected – their spin being that a late surge broke the challenger’s way. A small turnout translates to a more passionate electorate, in terms of those who bother to vote. And in a primary where Cantor was on the defensive for a host of reasons that riled Tea Party activists – bailouts, government debt and (most loudly) immigration reform – that spelled trouble for the Majority Leader.
2) McCarthy’s Turn? Looking at the list of House Republican leaders, one thing’s noticeable: not a one from California – only once, a GOP leader whose district was west of Texas. That could change if House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy moves up a notch from his current number-three spot in the chamber. But to do so, McCarthy will have to navigate at least three challenges: (1) he’s already been whipsawed by both sides – left and right – on immigration reform; (2) he’ll have to make peace with newly empowered conservatives in the House’s Republican Study Group and Republican Policy Committee; (3) House Speaker John Boehner might push for an outside-the-box pick like Washington Rep. Cathy McMorriss Rodgers, chair of the House Republican Conference and a rung below McCarthy on the GOP ladder. Here’s one other wild card: Boehner deciding not to seek another term as House Speaker in the next Congress, sending the House GOP into full tumult – and reporters scurrying to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (who’s already on record as not wanting Cantor’s job). Other names to watch in the race for the number-two spot: Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling; Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan; Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise.
3) Whither Immigration Reform? No sooner than the votes were counted in Virginia were the nation’s airwaves crackling with talk of immigration reform being dead for 2014. Here’s the rub: polls show Americans favor immigration reform. However, the support varies by region. Just days before his defeat, Cantor released a memo outlining House Republicans’ priorities for June: tax extenders, improving job skills, government funding bills – and nothing about immigration reform. Cantor’s defeat further complicates this question asked by The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin: “how does immigration reform fit into reform conservatism?” Sunday’s talk shows won’t lack for drama from Republicans on this topic, with the John McCain school of thought (reform’s a must for the GOP to win the presidency in 2016) squaring off vs. the Steve King “man the watchtowers 24/7” faction of conservative House members who a reform package being snuck through the chamber.
1) Overreaction. At the same time Cantor was going down in Virginia, Sen. Lindsey Graham breezed through his primary in South Carolina. Graham’s long been despised by Tea Party activists – in part for his support of immigration reform as part of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight”. That he’d skate by in his primary rebuts Democratic tweets and talking points that the GOP has been coopted by the grassroots mob. As for the Virginia race, Tea Party dissatisfaction with Cantor proved a powerful brew. Still, it’s not as if Brat fully embraced the movement, or every chance to embrace its leaders – last month, rather than drive up I-95 to Washington and break bread with Grover Norquist and hard-right operatives looking to elevate his campaign into a national cause, the economics professor instead stayed home and graded papers, he stayed on campus and graded papers.
2) Yellow Jacket Swarm. Brat, the college economics professor, earned the right to face Democratic nominee Jack Trammell. Trammell also teaches at Randolph-Macon – sociology being his field. Two candidates in the same congressional race: not bad for Randolph-Macon, home of the Yellow Jackets and a school with fewer than 1,300 undergraduates.