Rep. Eric Cantor’s upset loss in the Virginia Republican primary today has the media proclaiming a seismic shift in the world of conservative politics. This year was supposed to be the year when the Republican “establishment” exercised it’s clout and put down insurgencies from the Tea Party in order to prevent unelectable candidates from the far right from becoming their endorsee. And they’ve generally had a lot of success this year in defeating the wing-nuts. Cantor was the House Majority Leader with 5-10 times more money than Brat, and he’d been in office since 2001, so his campaign and the media certainly had reason to believe he could rely on TV ads, name recognition, and actual supporters to let him coast through the primary. Hence the “surprise” when this political neophyte beat him.
But Cantor’s loss is really just another instance of the same thing that happened to Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and a host of others – right up to Mitt Romney. The other guy had a better ground game. In this case, Dave Brat ran an endless stream of attacks against Cantor’s position on immigration reform which spoon-fed the hard core Tea Party members in the district. Given the abysmal voter participation rate in primary elections, it didn’t take many Tea Party followers to have a disproportionate impact and carry the day. Nor is it that surprising that Cantor’s campaign didn’t see this coming, since it’s hard to get accurate polls in this kind of race where the opinions of a relatively small group of energized voters who are disillusioned with the establishment wing doesn’t get fully factored into the field of likely voters.
At the end of the day, this election is just one more in a long string of election results that are the by-product of our hyper-gerrymandered congressional districts. While hardly the exclusive province of Republicans, the GOP’s dominance in state elections over the past 35 years has manifest itself in making their party particularly vulnerable to their extremist elements* because they’ve created so many districts that are purely Republican. When you add in their efforts to suppress voter participation and generally demonize politicians of all stripes, you end up with a very narrow electorate that is no longer representative of the citizens no matter how you slice and dice them. It’s long past the time when this issue needs to be addressed.
*(Democrat extremists are rarely organized enough to manage such coups. The Will Rogers quote comes to mind – “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat”. Simple wisdom abides.)