Making Sense of Cantor's Defeat: A Guide for Baffled Beltway Insiders

Making Sense of Cantor's Defeat: A Guide for Baffled Beltway Insiders

After a few primary defeats, the media was quick to shout, “The Tea Party is dead,” but it appears the reports of its death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated.

News outlets across the country were baffled last week when Dave Brat beat out Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District primary race. No sitting House majority leader has ever been defeated in a primary.

Though the media would prefer to cover its pet spokespeople – those trained to promote non-threatening ideas in palatable, 30-second sound bites – this monumental and historic victory forced them to go beyond their normal, dumbfounded pundits. As they take another look at the Tea Party movement, they wonder, “What happened?” A New York Times headline exemplifies the confusion: “Why Did Cantor Lose? Not Easy to Explain.” Chris Cillizza wrote a reflective article headlined, “Should I Have Seen the Cantor Loss Coming?”

In attempts to explain Cantor’s shocking defeat, they’re stumbling into a key aspect of the Tea Party movement that doesn’t fit into their political framework. Some commentators got close when attributing the victory to “enthusiasm” over money. Brat said, “Money doesn’t vote; people do,” which definitely was the case in this race. (Cantor outspent Brat by at least five to one.) Contrary to the pundits’ views on the world, Brat’s principles rallied the voters… not his strategists.

The media is finally grappling with the fact that the Tea Party really is a populist, localized movement. It’s never been about national organizations or national leaders. At its best, it animates and empowers average Americans to have a powerful voice in the national dialogue. The Tea Party doesn’t need national organizations and their astroturf efforts to emulate the grassroots.

Prior to the win, Brat didn’t get much attention even from groups now eager to claim him. As The Washington Post says:

Cantor’s loss took even the national Tea Party groups by surprise. None of them put money behind Brat, who was vastly outspent by Cantor and his outside allies.

But that didn’t matter either. “Free-market guy” Brat articulated Tea Party principles simply and unapologetically. Voters knew what they wanted, and it was their voice that was heard on Tuesday.

Mickey Kaus notes that Brat ran a uniquely bipartisan campaign. Brat addressed issues from amnesty to the “low-wage agenda” and “crony corporate lobby,” as well as “spending, debt and insider trading.” The day of the primary, Kaus speculated:

Maybe partisanship will eventually be transcended, not at the top, with David Brooks, Gloria Borger and Jon Huntsman imposing a Beltway consensus they hammer out at an Atlantic panel, but at the bottom, where less sleek figures… make common cause with Democratic workers who’ve gotten the short end of previous top-down triumphs such as global trade and Reagan’s 1986 amnesty, as well as of ineluctable technological trends like automation.

Now that the results are in, we can see he was on to something.

CBS News said Brat’s victory sends a message nationwide.

It will – and probably should – be read as a clear message from the Tea Party to [Republican party] leadership, as Tea Party activists show they are unhappy not just with Washington and Democrats but often with what they see as “the establishment” of the Republican party as well.

This race gives hope to those who love self-governance, people looking for ways to engage locally and be part of the change this nation needs.

The elites will keep hating it because they can’t understand it.

I can imagine the politicians and their strategists sitting at their laptops in offices around DC trying to make sense of voters who exercise self-governing behavior:

Who controls them?

How do we buy them off?

How do we intimidate them?

What do they really want?

They’re willing to “give” us just about anything – except for yielding to our determination to govern ourselves.

But here’s a message – that’s the very thing we won’t give up on. Brat’s victory shows we can achieve it – without exchanging principles for money or endorsements.


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