Last night House Majority Leader Eric Cantor Eric Cantor (R-VA) went down in a stunning defeat to Republican primary challenger David Brat. Cantor not only lost, but lost convincingly by 12 points to Brat, who was thought to have no chance of winning before last night. Brat was a relatively unknown economics professor before last night. In the aftermath of Cantor's defeat, analysts from Fox News and CNN were attributing the result to a Tea Party resurrection and Cantor's stance on immigration. However, the real reason behind Cantor's defeat may have more to do with gerrymandering and the neglect of an golden rule in politics.
Brat certainly had support among some Tea Party enthusiasts in Virginia, but this was hardly a race that the Tea Party threw its wholehearted support behind from the beginning.
If anything, Tea Party leaders were looking to defeat Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) last night above all else. Cantor was actually a big advocate for the Tea Party at its inception. Graham won easily last night defeating six Tea Party challengers.
Cantor actually had a reputation as a fairly hardcore conservative before last night. He was not exactly seen as a target RINO (Republican In Name Only) by much of the conservative base. Finally, it is not if Tea Party money from groups like Freedom Works were flowing into this race. Brat was sorely outspent by Cantor. Most estimates say Brat only spent about $200,000 on the campaign, and outside Tea Party groups were not helping Brat out with independent expenditures. The most help that Brat got was from conservative personalities like Laura Ingraham.
Then there is the myth of Cantor's support for immigration reform.
As pointed out by The Hill, quoting Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), Cantor was actually opposed to the bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed through the Senate. According to Schumer, Cantor was the number one obstacle in the House to passing immigration reform, despite Cantor's occasional "lip service" to the idea of passing a bill.
And contrary to the popular meme Cantor's district is not staunchly anti-immigration. As explained in a POLITICO article, a PPP (Public Policy Polling) survey fond that 72 percent of the registered voters in Cantor's district either "strongly" or "somewhat" support immigration reform that would secure the borders, block employers from hiring undocumented workers, and allow undocumented workers without a criminal background to gain legal status.
So if it was not immigration and it was not the Tea Party what explains Cantor's stunning loss?
First and foremost Cantor forgot the golden rule, which is that all politics is local. Numerous articles quote Hill aides saying Cantor forgot about constituent services within his district, and has lost touch with voters there. Increasingly Cantor became more concerned with being elected Speaker of the House by his fellow Republican representatives and forgot about the crucial first step of being elected by the people of his district. Cantor appears to have realized his mistake about a month ago when he finally started putting big money into his campaign, but by that time it was obviously too late.
But there is another factor in play that no one appears to be talking about, but probably should be when discussing Cantor's loss.
Increasingly Republicans are relying on the practice of gerrymandering in order to keep their majority in the House. For those unfamiliar with the concept, gerrymandering involves drawing districts in a very particular way so that there are far more members of your own party in the district than members of the other party. Gerrymandering often results in odd-shaped districts as party members go to extreme lengths to exclude unfriendly voters. Indeed, the term gerrymander originated from a district that was shaped like a salamander in order to exclude certain voters. This practice has been adopted by Republicans in Virginia, as evidence by the odd shape of Cantor's district.
By all accounts gerrymandering has been successful in allowing many incumbents, especially Republicans, to keep their jobs. Many analysts believe that the Republicans would have lost control of the House in the 2012 election if not for the aid of gerrymandering.
However, there is a flip side to gerrymandering which may have just been revealed in the Cantor primary.
By making his district more and more red (conservative/Republican), the party not only served to exclude the blue (Democrats) but also the white (independents) and the pink (moderate Republicans). A county-by-county and precinct-by-precinct analysis of the votes in Cantor's district shows that his worse losses came in the reddest parts of his districts. Normally, someone like Cantor could rely on moderates to see the wisdom of re-electing the House Majority Leader (who undoubtedly will bring millions of pork spending favors to the area). Moderates would also be weary of the more extreme viewpoints of someone like Brat. Democrats in such a district may even vote for Cantor if they believe it is pointless to vote in the Democratic primary.
Now we know that Cantor did not get enough votes from moderates or independents. By making his state dark red, Cantor essentially left himself at the mercy of the hardcore conservative base in his district. When that base turned on him, Cantor found himself without a job.
The ramifications of Cantor's loss could be felt in other races going forward. By gerrymandering their districts Republicans may have saved themselves temporarily, but doomed themselves to more conservative challengers in the future.