Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What happened in Virginia? (Eric Cantor loses)

I haven't followed a lot of national election races this year. There's been too much stuff locally that takes up my time. I knew longtime incumbent Eric Cantor had an opponent, but I didn't think much about it. If I thought an incumbent would have gone down in flames, my money would have been on Lindsay Graham.

It was Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader and  a suburban Richmond area congressman. He lost to a guy named David Brat. A lot of people are giving opinions about the reasons for that and a lot of people are taking credit. I'm not a Virginia elections expert. I do know the obvious. Cantor ticked off his district, and Brat was viewed as an acceptable alternative. David Brat is an Economics Professor at Randolph Macon College. He's a Michigan native and went to Hope College. He has a doctorate from American University. That's all that's really known about him.

These are the facts here about the primaries.

There were three congressional primaries there. Two of them had incumbents, and one was an open seat.

VA-01- Rob Wittman won his primary 76-24 in a low turnout race. This district was next to Cantor's and had around 1/4 of the votes in the primary. Cantor's district is more Republican, but both districts are Republican leaning districts. There was 17500 votes there.

VA-08 - The democrats had an open seat in Jim Moran's district. That primary had almost 39000 votes. That is a base democrat district covering Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church, and part of Fairfax County.

In Cantor's VA-07 district, there were 65000 votes. Turnout was high. Cantor lost by 7300 votes in a 56-44 defeat.

Geographicaly, Cantor won four municipalities.
Culpeper County - 2900 votes, 50-49 -  Rural, northern part of the district
Orange County - 2000 votes, 61-39 - Rural, northern part of the district
Spotsylvania County - 3600 votes, 54-46 - Rural, northern part of the district
Richmond (his home) - 3100 votes, 54-46 - The big city.

The rest went to Brat.
Chesterfield County  - 13000 votes - 55-45 Brat, Richmond suburbs
Goochland County - 2700 votes - 54-56. Rural, west of Richmond.
Hanover County - 13000 votes - 68-32. Rural/suburban transition area north of Richmond
Henrico County - 20000 votes - 53-47. Suburban Richmond
Louisa County - 2400 votes - 56-44. Rural. Northwest of Richmond
New Kent County - 2000 votes - 63-37. Rural. East of Richmond

In short, Cantor won his home, and three rural counties furthest away from the district closer to the DC area. He was clobbered in suburbia and the rural areas closer to Richmond.

That's the facts, the rest is conjecture. 

Was this due to amnesty as many pundits say? Maybe, maybe not. Lindsay Graham won without a runoff (7 way race), unfortunately. I was hoping McCain's mini-me would at least be tossed to a runoff. Was this tea party? McConnell beat Matt Bevin in Kentucky. Most of the tea party put their forces in Bevin's race and Chris McDaniel's in Mississippi. (two very flawed challengers against beatable incumbents).

One difference I see between Bevin/McDaniel and Brat is candidate quality. Bevin lost 60-35 in the primary to McConnell in what was supposed to be a close race. Bevin made a fatal error when he made a cockfighting and dogfighting speech. I can see the Michael Vick/Bevin morphing ad already if he won the primary. Or a postcard with a picture of those two next to a Golden Retriever. McConnell isn't my favorite, but needed to win that one. Some of McDaniel's top supporters (who need a major league ass kicking and I don't mean just a political one) may cost him the race against the democrat if he wins the primary. I'd be reluctantly voting Cochrane if I lived in Mississippi. Those wouldn't be ideology votes since I'm closer to the challengers on ideology there than I am the incumbents. In the case of Brat, I haven't heard his name in the news or on political websites until yesterday. That's not always a bad thing considering I'm up in Livingston County, Michigan and not Hanover County, Virginia. I didn't hear about Brat making cockfighting comments. I didn't hear about Brat's supporters sneaking into a nursing home to take pictures of the opposing candidate's wife. Brat ran on political record as best as I can tell.

Brat's quotes. From Politico

“I think it was just kind of a perfect combination of when I was walking door-to-door, you just go up to the door and talk to the average person and everybody is in agreement that the country’s on the wrong track, right?” he said, before appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program.
“You just walk up to the door and say, ‘How are you doing?’ and everyone knows we’re on the wrong track. The problem with modern politics is everybody is doing sound bite stuff. In my stump speech, I give 20 minutes on why I think we’re off track. And I think people do really want to engage in a serious high-level discussion on how to get the country back on track because people care about their own country.”

I liked Brat's comments here from the same article.

When Brat began to walk away from the interview, he quickly turned around and stopped. He said he had just spoken to Sean Hannity on the telephone, and said he wished the press would stop labeling his victory as the conservative right toppling the establishment.
“I do want to add that the press – and I’ve heard there’s already some senior Democratic officials trying to spin this as a matter of right or left – and I just reject those categories. I’m running on free markets, constitutional principles. I don’t think free markets are either right or left. I don’t think the rule of law is either right or left. So through the duration of the last six months the press has been trying to pigeonhole me. Some people call me a liberal professor, other people call me a tea party candidate.”
When asked if he is a tea partier, Brat said, “I just say what I say — I’m running on the Republican principles, the creed. I’ve given stump speech after stump speech on those six principles that I believe in and I have huge grassroots and tea party support, and I owe those people the election. I owe Republicans, tea party, grassroots — they all came together and helped me win tonight. Utter thanks, but the press is trying to do this sound bite stuff and put you in a little hole, and peg you in one way or the other.
“I do just want to emphasize I’m running on ideas and principles. It’s for real. And so the press ignored me last time when I said that. Everyone’s acting like it’s a mystery how I won. I think the American people actually like principles and ideals. That’s what I said for six months and no one paid any attention. And so now that I won, it’s a shocker, I think it’s for real, based on those themes: principles and ideas matter.”

This">caught my attention.

Brat also got a bit lucky. At the same time he was emerging, Cantor and his political team were angering conservatives by trying to tighten their grip on the Virginia Republican Party. Cantor tried to boost Linwood Cobb, his close ally, for a local Republican Party chairmanship, and failed. It was a loss that most of his aides brushed aside, but caused real ire among tea partiers.
That widespread discontent became evident Tuesday evening. Cantor lost six of the 10 counties in his district, including Henrico County, his longtime political base

If you burn bridges, and those you burn know what they are doing (or know people who know what they are doing), bad thing can happen to you.

This is from a local Hanover County activist who wanted Cantor fired. It's titled the Top 10 reasons Cantor lost.

I'm beginning to see a picture of what I think happened. Normal insurgent challenges don't win, until enough people get pissed off, and enough people who know a bit about campaigns get pissed off.

From that Top 10 list:
10 – LOST TOUCH: There has been significant discontent in the district for years with Eric Cantor. He earned a reputation as someone who cared more about Fortune 500 companies than he did voters in his own district and he proved it by spending all his time with them and no time with the people in his district. It was baffling to many of us. When the tea party first sprung up people were angry with Cantor. I had known Cantor and Ray Allen for years and thought it was just a misunderstanding. Surely this could be resolved by opening the lines of communication and just having a meeting together for Cantor to hear our complaints so we could work together. I still remember the private meeting I had with his consultant, Ray Allen, five years ago when he told me, “Eric Cantor will never hold a town hall meeting. Over my dead body! You hear me?” Fatal mistake.
Consultants (and I am one) are often in a bubble. Mike Rogers was not a tea party favorite, but he's shown up and engaged and made his case to them. I've seen his people at a lot of tea party events as well as regular Republican events.

Numbers 2 and 8 really I think were the biggest.

2 – STRONG CANDIDATE: The conservatives and tea party put up a strong candidate. A lesson should be learned here by others. Brat has an impressive resume with his PhD in economics, his seminary degree from Princeton, and his work in ethics reform and education policy. He was an intelligent and articulate candidate that brought credibility to the movement. Brat ran a positive and upbeat campaign that solely was focused on the Republican Creed. Cantor refused to engage Brat or even participate in debates with Brat. Fatal mistake.

How often do I mention candidate quality?  This David Brat guy doesn't sound like a Christine O'Donnell, Matt Bevin, some of Chris McDaniel's top backers, or Sharron Angle.

8 – UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES: Eric Cantor and his consultant, Ray Allen, wanted to control the Republican Party of Virginia and he was willing to use any means necessary to accomplish his goal, including slating tea party and conservatives out of the political process. He created such outrage that we removed Cantor’s 7th district chairman, Linwood Cobb, at the convention last month. We left the convention with 700 delegates that energetically and enthusiastically worked the doors and phones for Brat. It is really not smart to make enemies of your friends, and especially when you are in a primary. Fatal mistake.

And THAT I think was the big key. One of the old sayings is "If you're going to kill the king, you better succeed." That doesn't mean wound for one battle. When convention battles are takeover battles, you're going have some nasty fights and they last a long time. Activists in general hate coronations. They also have more political knowledge than the average activist.  A lot of them don't have fear of "big names". "So what, you work for us" is the general attitude.

From Politico in April
RICHMOND, Va. — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is a rising star in national politics, but here at home, he’s at the center of a battle with fellow Republicans.
His allies are maneuvering to pack leadership slots at the Republican Party of Virginia with like-minded figures — a move they hope will bring stability to a party with little money and lots of infighting.

That’s infuriated some local conservatives, who feel they are being squeezed out of positions of power and aren’t going down without a fight. They are rallying behind insurgent primary challenger Dave Brat, an economics professor with just $40,000 in the bank — compared to Cantor’s $2 million.
While Brat has little chance of upsetting Cantor in the June 10 primary, the campaign and its supporters are making life a little tougher for Cantor, who will almost certainly become the next speaker of the House.

Those don't impact the numbers, but they impact organization and lot of them know what they are doing. If they all went to help David Brat, that can have a big impact, especially if they have good voter lists and contact information. 
I don't think this was all ideological.  Graham survived. McConnell survived. I think ideology was part of it, but more of it was inside baseball stuff that came back to bite him This election is a lesson. It's a lesson to every pol and party official out there. Be careful who you piss off.