Eric Cantor loss: What happened there?

Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, appears to have failed to turn out his voters in Virginia's Seventh District. David Brat's supporters did not. Cantor's team may have ignored trouble signs earlier this year.

P. Kevin Morley/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
David Brat (r.) is congratulated by Johnny Wetlaufer after Brat defeated House majority leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary on Tuesday, in Richmond, Va. His historic upset will be grist for political science seminars for years to come.

House majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss on June 10 may rank as one of the most shocking congressional upsets in American history.

No pundit anywhere predicted the defeat of Representative Cantor (R) of Virginia by GOP rival David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph Macon College. Cantor himself appears not to have seen this coming. Otherwise, he would not have stayed in Washington on Election Day, where our congressional correspondent spotted him strolling around Capitol Hill.

So what in tarnation happened? In a word, turnout. It appears as if many of Cantor’s backers stayed home while Mr. Brat’s went to the polls. In fact, it’s likely that a majority of Republicans in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District still support Cantor. The problem for him was that they were not the electorate who decided his fate.

Look at some numbers and you can get a rough idea of what happened. Cantor was actually crushed by Brat, 55 percent to 45 percent. But only about 65,000 people showed up for the primary. Brat got about 36,000 of those votes. Cantor got about 29,000.

But in the 2012 general election, Cantor rolled to victory over his Democratic opponent with 223,000 votes, according to state records. That’s, what, 3-1/2 times more people than voted total in Tuesday's primary!

Even if Cantor got crossover votes from independents and Democrats, you can bet there are a lot of Republicans from November 2012 who just didn’t vote in June 2014. That’s common in primaries, which many voters just don’t take as seriously as they do general elections. In fact, primary turnout in Virginia's Seventh District rose this year by 20,000 voters compared with the 2012 GOP primary. Those were Brat supporters surging to the polls. Meanwhile, Cantor’s backers got caught napping. Perhaps literally, some of them.

That’s our theory, anyway.

The truth is that this upset is so stunning they’re going to be studying it in political science seminars for years to come. It’s true that there were some hints earlier this year that Cantor was in trouble: In March, in his home county of Henrico, conservative activists blocked the majority leader’s slate of delegates to the Seventh District convention in favor of their own. But in Washington, Cantor was not seen as vulnerable to a challenge from his right. He was perceived as the link between the tea party and the GOP establishment – a tough guy who sometimes differed with Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and aimed, eventually, to replace him. He did embrace some piecemeal proposals related to immigration reform – not a comprehensive bill, by any means. That might still have cost him, as immigration was one issue that Brat used against Cantor. The professor hit the congressman as supporting “amnesty” for some illegal immigrants.

Brat himself says Cantor’s huge cash edge turned out to be a negative. Cantor ran $2 million in ads attempting to brand Brat as a “liberal professor." All that did was alert voters that they actually had a choice in the upcoming primary, Brat told Politico’s Todd Purdum on Tuesday night.

For what it’s worth, the new GOP candidate for the Seventh District rejects the “tea party” label. He said he is running on free markets and constitutional principles that he considers neither left nor right wing.

“Everyone’s acting like it’s a mystery how I won. I think the American people actually like principles and ideals,” Brat told Mr. Purdum.

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