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Assessing Eric Cantor's Primary Defeat: House Majority Leader Ignored Voters' Frustrations

Assessing Eric Cantor's Primary Defeat: House Majority Leader Ignored Voters' Frustrations

Dave Brat’s stunning defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District cannot be reduced to a single factor, as most commentators have been quick to assert. 

Primary voters’ opposition to amnesty clearly factored into the outcome, but that was hardly enough by itself to trigger Cantor’s downfall. Concerns about his failure to provide effective leadership to address the $17 trillion national debt and to defund ObamaCare were equally potent factors.  

And there were other factors peculiar to Virginia at play this year. Cantor had declined to support Virginia’s 2013 GOP candidate for Governor, Ken Cuccinelli. Forces close to Cuccinelli took control of the Republican State Central Committee and voted to reverse the Party’s decision to nominate its gubernatorial candidate by primary and selected a convention process instead. Cantor’s political ally, Bill Bolling, withdrew as a candidate and refused to endorse Cuccinelli.   

There was considerable resentment among many in the Party’s rank-and-file as a result of what they perceived as the dog-in-the-manger attitude displayed by Cantor and Bolling in the wake of their loss of control of the State Party. The chief political consultant of both Cantor and Bolling went so far as to endorse the Democrat running against Cuccinelli in 2013. 

To compound the perception of Cantor as a divisive force undermining the Party’s overall prospects of success, he launched a campaign to crush the Tea Party in Virginia and negate its influence in Congress. Earlier in the Spring, Cantor’s candidate to lead the GOP in the 7th District was defeated by a relative newcomer who emphasized the need to unite the Party. The momentum began to build for Cantor’s primary defeat after that intra-party election. 

The lessons to be learned from the historic defeat of a congressional leader in this primary are more complex than most accepted on hearing the news. It is important, particularly for Dave Brat, not to draw the wrong conclusions. The primary was not a referendum on immigration reform, term limits or any other single factor. What it did indicate was that politicians in Virginia — or at least in the 7th Congressional District — cannot afford to ignore the frustration of their constituents with the state of affairs in their Party and in Washington.

Patrick McSweeney is the former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia (1992-1996). He has practiced law in Virginia since 1968 and has been active in GOP politics even longer. For a number of years, he published weekly political commentary in Virginia newspapers.

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