Did meddling Democrats defeat Eric Cantor?

Former Rep. Ben Jones, a Georgia Democrat who played 'Cooter' on 'Dukes of Hazzard,' claims he was instrumental in Rep. Eric Cantor's defeat. Last weekend, Jones posted a letter online calling on Democrats to vote in the Virginia primary. The letter went viral.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia leaves a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday after telling reporters he intends to resign his leadership post at the end of July following his defeat in the Virginia primary Tuesday.

Former Rep. Ben Jones, a Georgia Democrat who played “Cooter” on the TV show “Dukes of Hazzard,” claims he was instrumental in the stunning defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 Republican in the House.

The weekend before Tuesday’s primary, Mr. Jones had written an open letter in Huffington Post urging Democrats in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District to vote for David Brat, the tea party-backed college professor who ended up winning. Virginia primaries are open to anyone of voting age. The letter went viral.

“It may be the only way to empower those who want to make a statement about the dysfunctional Congress and ‘politics as usual,’ ” Jones wrote.

The Seventh District is heavily Republican, which means the winner in the primary is virtually assured election in November. And when Professor Brat won, Jones was ecstatic, crowing on TV about the “Cooter effect.”

Jones had a personal reason to help defeat Congressman Cantor: In 2002, having moved to Virginia, he tried for a political comeback by running against Cantor, then a House freshman. Jones lost.

“He questioned my patriotism,” Jones told the New York Daily News. “He made fun of me for the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and being a Southerner.”

Cantor’s pollster in this year’s primary also floated the “meddling Democrats” story line.

“Over the weekend Democrats like Ben Jones and liberal media were driving their Democratic voters on the internet into the open primary,” GOP pollster John McLaughlin wrote in an e-mail to National Journal. “Eric got hit from right and left. In our polls two weeks out Eric was stronger with Republicans at 70 percent of the vote, but running under 50 percent among non-Republicans.”

“Untold story is, who were the new primary voters?” Mr. McLaughlin continued. “They were probably not Republicans.”

Democrats in Virginia’s Seventh District would certainly have a motive to try to oust Cantor. His defeat at the hands of an underfunded college professor would embarrass the Republican establishment, and cause some momentary turmoil in the House GOP caucus (which it has). That’s actually bad news for President Obama, whose chances at passing immigration reform anytime soon have moved from slim to virtually zero. But it could help the Democrats win the White House in 2016, as lack of immigration reform will hurt Republican efforts to woo Latino voters.

The only problem with all this is that there’s no evidence that devious Democrats swung the race, analysts say. Generally speaking, analysts say, the idea that voters “meddling” in the “other party’s primary” can swing the outcome is an urban legend. There aren’t enough opposition voters who operate strategically or are so motivated to make mischief that they make the effort to turn out.

Some Democrats may well have voted in the GOP primary in Cantor’s district, but there’s “no way” that higher Democratic turnout than normal could have given Brat such a big win, Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor at "Sabato’s Crystal Ball," told Business Insider.

Brat beat Cantor by 11 percentage points, 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent. Two years ago, Cantor won his primary by nearly 60 percentage points, with 37,369 votes. This year, he got only 28,898 votes. If Cantor had just gotten the same number of votes he got in 2012, he would have won, Mr. Skelley points out.

Business Insider also reports data tweeted by Michael McDonald of George Mason University, who found that the precincts with the highest numbers of registered Democrats produced the lowest vote totals.

So why did Cantor lose?

“It can’t be said that Cantor was caught napping,” writes David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “Cantor spent heavily on TV and mailers attacking Brat, but his loss simply speaks to Cantor’s inability to match the mood of the GOP base.” 

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