Ben Jones, former U.S. House Representative from Georgia, appears to have played a role in the surprising upset of U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va) Tuesday night in the Republican primary in Virginia’s seventh congressional district.
Cantor, the House majority leader, lost to Tea Party candidate David Brat, an economics professor, by more than 11 points. Cantor was polling as much as 20-30 points ahead of his challenger just days before the election and outspent Brat by at least 5-1.
The 2014 primary also drew 65,000 voters, 18,000 more than in 2012 - a presidential election year. In 2012, Cantor defeated a Tea Party candidate by nearly 60 points.
Jones, who represented Georgia’s fourth congressional district from 1989 to 1993 but now lives in Virginia, called for Democrats in the seventh district to participate in the open Republican primary and vote Cantor out.
“By voting for David Brat in the Seventh District Republican primary, we Democrats, independents, and Libertarians can make a big difference in American politics,” Jones said in a public letter to Virginia Democrats provided to the media. “It is your right to cast that vote. It is an 'open' primary and it doesn’t preclude anyone from voting anyway they wish in November. It may be the only way to empower those who want to make a statement about the dysfunctional Congress and 'politics as usual.'”
Jones ran against Cantor in Virginia in 2002 and lost. In his letter, Jones explains that in the districts drawn to protect the incumbents, the only way to actually affect the election is participation in primaries, regardless of party affiliation.
“From what I know of Dave Brat, he is a good, honest, and honorable man,” said Jones. “And from what I know of Eric Cantor, I can say only that he ran a truly dishonorable campaign against me back in 2002. He ducked debates, slandered me in slick mailings, questioned my patriotism and even mocked my Southern heritage. He simply cannot be taken at his word. You can call that “sour grapes” if you want to, but I am just telling it the way it was, and surely is.”
While polling is not always reliable, the only way to explain Cantor’s unexpected and curiously undetected loss is the participation of non-Republicans. That would also explain the unusual increase in primary voter turn-out, especially in a year when there is no presidential election.
Cantor has been a member of the House of Representatives since 2001. The congressman was rumored to be a likely candidate to replace Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as the House Speaker, which would have made him the first Jewish man to hold the position. Instead, Cantor makes history as the first house majority leader to lose his party’s primary.
Cantor could still run in the general election, since Virginia laws allow a write-in candidate. The congressman has not indicated whether he will run in November, probably trying to take some time to evaluate why he lost.