Eric Cantor loss: Is Washington overreacting?

Eric Cantor's upset is a seismic event for Washington pundits and Republicans scrambling to replace him as House majority leader. But a game-changer for US politics? Not likely.

Manuel Baice Ceneta/AP
House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia leaves a news conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Repudiated at the polls, Cantor resigned his leadership post, effective July 31, setting off a leadership scramble in House GOP ranks.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss to insurgent GOP challenger David Brat is a seismic political event that shows the rising power of the tea party and will push the Republican Party further right for years to come, profoundly affecting the future of American governance.

Or ... maybe not.

Look, is it possible the world of US politics is over-interpreting this Cantor thing? We’re not saying it’s unimportant, particularly for the people directly affected. But this isn’t Harry Truman coming back against heavily favored Thomas Dewey. Maybe it’s just a ripple on the tide.

It’s not like Representative Cantor was ousted by a stampede of angry voters. As we noted yesterday, his fate was decided largely by turnout. Only a tiny percentage of Republicans from Virginia’s Seventh District bothered to vote in Tuesday’s primary. We’d bet that most of Cantor’s supporters stayed home, believing his reelection was a foregone conclusion.

The total number of votes cast was 65,000. Mr. Brat’s margin of victory was about 7,000 – he got 36,000 votes, and Cantor 29,000. Yet in the 2012 general election, Cantor won with 223,000 votes. Thus a whopping number of ex-Cantor voters did not show up in June 2014, even if you assume some of them switched allegiance to the other guy.

Yes, Brat’s supporters may have been more energized and thus more likely to cast ballots. In Virginia's open primary, some Democrats may even have voted for Brat to diss Cantor. But that’s a narrative about the mechanics of district politics, not about a shift in district ideology writ large.

Ezra Klein made a similar point yesterday at Vox.

“There are no grand lessons about the schisms in the Republican Party in those results,” Klein wrote after perusing the numbers.

OK, fine, but what about the effect? Establishment Republican House members will take little comfort from this abstract argument, after all. They look at Cantor and see somebody who got caught napping by a primary challenge from the tea party, and they’ll vow that won’t happen to them. The likely result: a big lurch rightward in the caucus. There will be more hostility towards working with the Obama administration. Glimmerings of bipartisan progress on immigration and other issues will be extinguished.

This might happen, given the complexity of the interaction between personalities and policy outcomes. But given existing levels of partisan deadlock will we be able to tell? Congressional Republicans already opposed the Obama administration on virtually every policy point. Immigration reform was dead. Now it will be deader. Will there be a second special Benghazi committee? Will the House vote to repeal Obamacare yet again?

Even comic/pretend pundit Jon Stewart thought this was over the top. “Oh now, Congress’s current golden age of cooperation and productiveness is over!” said Stewart on last night’s “Daily Show.”

There will be a new House majority leader, of course. But whoever it is, their ideology won’t be much different from that of Cantor, who was already widely seen as the link between the rightward wing of the caucus and the more establishment Speaker of the House, John Boehner. The frontrunner for the post is probably Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) of California, who is currently majority whip, the No. 3 position in the party hierarchy, and a Cantor friend.

It’s tempting to give in to hyperbole and predict that everything has changed in Washington due to Cantor’s loss, write Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But not much really has changed. Far more important is the battle for control of the Senate in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections.

“The point here is that yes, Cantor’s loss was shocking and notable. It’s the political story of the year, so far. But take a deep breath. These things sometimes happen,” write Messrs. Kondik and Skelley in UVA’s “Sabato’s Crystal Ball."

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