Primary Focus

June 16, 2014

Eric Cantor at conservative Christian political event in 2011
(photo credit: Brian Kaylor)
Last week, Republican Representative Eric Cantof of Virginia made history - but not in a way he wanted. On Tuesday, Cantor became the first U.S. House Majority Leader in history to lose a primary election. Although solidly conservative, Cantor lost to a Tea Party challenger (a little-known college professor with little campaign money) who questioned Cantor's conservative commitments and reliability. Cantor's loss will leave the House Republicans without any non-Christians in its caucus (he is Jewish). As stunned journalists and politicos digested the news, the assessments varied in trying to explain the unexpected vote. Here are a couple thoughts on his loss that should be remembered.

First, Cantor's loss should not sound the deathknell for immigration reform. Although many pundits quickly claimed Cantor lost because of his support for immigration reform, that analysis badly misreads the political climate. If Cantor's loss is related at all to immigration reform it would be because he waffled on the issue and stood as an obstacle to reform legislation. In fact, the same night Cantor lost, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the co-author of the Senate's immigration reform bill, easily beat back Tea Party challenge even as he ran on his immigration reform record. As long as politicians do not learn the wrong lesson from Cantor's loss and run away from immigration reform, Graham's legislation should have a better chance with Cantor leaving.

Second, Cantor's loss should remind us that politics is still local. Cantor is ambitious and had his eye on becoming Speaker of the House. He likely would have made it to that post had the voters in his district just left him alone. As Cantor focused on national politics, he ignored his district and became unpopular at home. He was so out-of-touch (and self-assured) that he stayed in Washington, D.C., on election day even though his district is less than two hours away. In an age where many political races are nationalized, Cantor's loss shows that politicians still need to actually represent the people.