Eric Cantor's loss in the Republican primary Tuesday night sent shockwaves through the establishments of both parties. The previously dominant "Tea Party is dead" narrative has been unceremoniously dumped. Some in the media seem to be pursuing two new storylines: “Support for immigration reform dooms Republicans” and “the Tea Party is actually dominant in the Republican Party.”
But both of these explanations run into problems. Lindsey Graham is one of the faces of immigration reform, and he won his primary handily. The “inmates running the asylum” narrative runs into the very real establishment wins from earlier in the cycle -- the same wins that gave rise to the “Tea Party is dead” storyline.
In truth, I think the explanation is a bit simpler than all of that, and is more universal than the simplistic “immigration reform/Tea Party” narratives suggest. It is as follows: We are in a deeply anti-Washington environment, both throughout the country and in the Republican Party in particular. In this environment, representatives who pay insufficient attention to what is going on in their districts are in grave danger of losing. There are two components to this explanation.
First, analysts need to understand that the Republican base is furious with the Republican establishment, especially over the Bush years. From the point of view of conservatives I’ve spoken with, the early- to mid-2000s look like this: Voters gave Republicans control of Congress and the presidency for the longest stretch since the 1920s.
And what do Republicans have to show for it? Temporary tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a new Cabinet department, increased federal spending, TARP, and repeated attempts at immigration reform. Basically, despite a historic opportunity to shrink government, almost everything that the GOP establishment achieved during that time moved the needle leftward on domestic policy. Probably the only unambiguous win for conservatives were the Roberts and Alito appointments to the Supreme Court; the former is viewed with suspicion today while the latter only came about after the base revolted against Harriet Miers.
The icing on the cake for conservatives is that these moves were justified through an argument that they were necessary to continue to win elections and take issues off the table for Democrats. Instead, Bush’s presidency was followed in 2008 by the most liberal Democratic presidency since Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by sizable Democratic House and Senate majorities.
You don’t have to sympathize with this view, but if you don’t understand it, you will never understand the Tea Party. Watch Dave Brat’s interview on Fox News here. He is not Tom Tancredo; immigration reform is not his main focus. He’s hitting a lot of the themes that I discuss above, which in many ways echo the Democratic Netroots’ discontent with “Wall Street Democrats” in the mid-2000s (a discontent that led, in part, to Obama’s victory in the 2008 primaries, to the discomfort of some in the Democratic Leadership Council).
In short, the GOP base is frustrated over the direction of the country. Obviously a large portion of that frustration is directed at the Democratic Party, and Barack Obama in particular. But it is also directed at the party establishment and Washington, D.C. When pundits say that the Tea Party seems like it is more interested in defeating Republicans than Democrats, they aren’t entirely off base. They just miss the reasoning behind that animus toward the GOP establishment.
This leads to the second part of the argument. We might loosely state it as follows: Republican politicians who seem to get the above-mentioned points tend to win. Those who do not, lose. This is true even if their backgrounds might qualify them to be high on the Tea Party “hit list.” The politicians who lose are those who either never see it coming or refuse to believe that they are vulnerable.
Compare Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch. Both came to the Senate in the same year, and both were moderately conservative members of that body, at least by present standards. But in his 2012 re-election race, Hatch fought from day one, corralled key endorsements from Mark Levin, discouraged quality challengers like Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and managed to clear a very conservative convention and win his primary election handily. He didn’t remake himself or his voting record entirely, but he did play like he was 10 points behind.
Lugar, on the other hand, ran a terrible Senate campaign, beset by allegations that he’d failed even to maintain a proper residence in the state. He looked like he’d “gone Washington.” He lost.
We can see this tendency in other races. John McCain took J.D. Hayworth seriously from the outset, and won his primary easily. We might say in retrospect that Hayworth had severe problems that would prevent him from winning a primary. But this is the point. Christine O’Donnell had severe problems that would prevent her from winning a primary; the difference is that Hayworth’s problems were ingrained in the mind of GOP primary voters by Election Day while O’Donnell’s weren’t.
Lindsey Graham knew that he had a target on his back, and fought hard to discourage members of Congress from running against him, and set up a top-notch constituent service operation. He won. Mitch McConnell took his challenge very seriously, Thad Cochran did not. Bob Bennett did not take his challenge seriously, Thom Tillis moved to shore up his right flank. This showed up in the results.
This brings us back to Cantor. In his political science classic, “Home Style: House Members in Their Districts,” Richard Fenno hypothesized that members of Congress have three goals: re-election, power in Washington, and enacting policy preferences. To pursue the second two goals, a member must achieve the first, and to do that, he or she must adopt a style that suits the district. If these images are not consistently reinforced, the incumbent will have trouble. Crucially, Fenno notes that the adoption of an effective home style involves a two-way communication process: Telling the constituents about oneself, but also listening to constituents. With the benefit of hindsight, we can probably apply this model to explain most of the Tea Party wins and losses over the past few years.
I have yet to read anything suggesting that Cantor had a good home style. His staff is consistently described as aloof, and his constituent service is lacking. This is consistent with my experience. Anecdotes are not data, but after passage of the Affordable Care Act, I called his office with a question about what autism therapies for my son would now be covered (I lived in Cantor’s district for six years). I never heard back. This surprised me, as constituent questions rarely go unanswered. I never once saw Cantor, not at county fairs, not at school board meetings, and not in the parades that would sometimes march past our house (we lived on a major thoroughfare). This isn’t to say that Cantor never did these things, only that they weren’t frequent enough to register; he wasn’t the stereotypical Southern politician whose face showed up at every event.
In short, Cantor seemed more focused on the second and third goals of a politician -- power and policy -- to the detriment of the first. I am guessing he didn’t realize he might have a problem until he was booed at a district meeting a month ago. If he’d run scared, the result might well have been different. But he didn’t, and he lost. This is really the big-picture message for GOP incumbents. You don’t have to remake yourself into a Tea Partier. But you do have to care.