In Cantor defeat, a lesson on how to treat voters

A stunning primary loss for the well-funded House leader Eric Cantor to a relatively unknown candidate may show voters in the Internet Age refuse to be treated as naive targets of expensive campaign tactics.

AP Photo
In this combined photo, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., left, and Dave Brat, right, react after the polls close June 10 in Richmond, Va. Tea party challenger Brat defeated Cantor in a stunning upset in a Republican primary election, denying the second-most powerful man in the US House of Representatives a place on the November ballot.

A common view of American voters from abroad is that they are easily duped. Why else do candidates in the United States spend billions on TV ads during elections other than to trick the gullible?

That view is now up for grabs after the stunning defeat of a well-funded and powerful Republican politician, House majority leader Eric Cantor, in a GOP primary Tuesday.

Mr. Cantor outspent his opponent by roughly 25 to 1, mainly on TV commercials, and yet still lost. To be sure, political issues such as immigration and Wall Street favoritism swayed many voters in the conservative Virginia district. And primaries tend to attract the more politically active voter. The successful bid of the winner, tea party candidate David Brat, shows that American politicians should be treating voters as engaged and intelligent citizens rather than naive targets of expensive marketing.

First, Dr. Brat, a little-known college professor, spent only about $200,000 in his campaign and had no political-action committees. Cantor’s war chest was $5.5 million and he easily rounded up 377 PACs – yes, 377 – which were mainly funded by big outside groups and companies. With that spending imbalance, Washington pundits assumed Cantor could control the primary’s voters – which included both Democrats and Republicans – like a puppeteer. As a result, the national media paid scant attention to the race.

Second, Mr. Brat campaigned strongly against big money in politics. “Money doesn’t vote. People do,” he said in stump speeches. Like many Democratic candidates who also rely on small donations, Brat sought to remind voters that they are quite capable of judging candidates without being seduced by slick slogans and TV sound bites.

While most elections for the House and Senate have long been won by those with the most money, perhaps Brat’s upset victory suggests American voters in the Internet Age are more demanding of transparency, accountability, and authenticity from their candidates. Information about politicians is now more accessible. No one with a Web connection can claim ignorance of a candidate’s record and promises. Half-truths in ads are quickly exposed.

Maybe American voters see themselves as more empowered. That trend is certainly the case for voters around the world in countries such as Brazil, Turkey, and India that have seen protests erupt over corruption in high places.

The latest Pew poll shows Americans more politically apart than ever. Yet on both the left and right, many candidates have won by running as if voters are not dupes of monied campaign tactics. While well-funded candidates have lost races before, the Cantor-Brat contest with its lopsided financing could signal that voters see their roles as citizens differently. The world may need to change its view of the American voter.

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