Winston Churchill once said “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile—hoping it will eat him last.”
Last night, Eric Cantor was eaten by the Tea Party. Chomp. Chomp.
It is perhaps the most shocking loss in modern congressional elections—the powerful Republican leader losing his perch to an unknown member of his own party despite outspending his opponent by more than 25 to 1.
First-time candidate and full-time economics professor Dave Brat decisively defeated the consummate pol by a 55 to 45 margin. His secret? Run hard to Cantor’s right on immigration and other hot button issues while boasting the support of talk-radio favorites like Mark Levin and Ann Coulter.
But don’t give the TeaVangelist team too much credit for strategic genius. The key factor in this upset is a 12% voter turnout—meaning that 6.1% of the local electorate could make a majority. This is a paradise for activists and ideologues—Main Street voters, not so much.
No one seriously doubts whether Cantor could have won a general election in his Virginia district. This is purely a numbers game. An unrepresentative turnout makes for an unrepresentative result. And for Republicans, it is perhaps the most pointed reminder of the dangerous game they’ve been playing by stoking the fires of furious conservative populism. Golem ultimately turns on its creator.
The vicious irony is that Cantor has been courting Tea Party forces since they emerged in the early months of the Obama presidency, presenting himself as their emissary inside Republican leadership. As an awkwardly self-styled “Young Gun,” Cantor was instrumental in creating the obstruction-at-all-costs strategy against President Obama that resulted in no GOP votes for the stimulus bill, despite the administration’s inclusion of 1/3 tax cuts. When the country first flirted with default in the summer of 2011—resulting in the S&P downgrade of our nation’s AAA credit rating—Cantor was the hardball negotiator who refused to back a grand-bargain despite Speaker Boehner’s urging.
Cantor dutifully flung the rhetorical red meat at conservative conclaves like the How to Take Back America conference in 2009, declaring “Right now, millions of Americans are waking up realizing that they don't recognize their country anymore.” He expected to be rewarded for playing the tough guy while firmly establishing himself as a donor-class favorite. Next stop, Speaker Cantor.
It seemed like a safe bet. After all, buying into the idea that Eric Cantor is some sort of squish requires ignoring Cantor’s 100% ratings from the National Right to Life Committee, the Chamber of Commerce and the NRA. It requires fixating on those few votes that stick in the craw of the conservative activist community—usually when ideology collides with the basic responsibility of governing.
For Cantor, the outstanding question is whether he will mount a write-in campaign for the general election, along the lines of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s successful effort against Tea Party-backed GOP nominee Joe Miller in 2012. But the fact that the Tea Party-pandering Republican House leader is considered a Republican-in-Name Only by some activists speaks to how out of control the RINO-hunting frenzy has become. Only absolutists need apply.
The real question is how the GOP will greet the news of his defeat. The stubborn optimist in me would like to think that this could be a moment of clarity, a liberation on the part of Republican leadership to do what they know is right for their party and their country, in particular by passing immigration reform.
But instead, the overwhelming likelihood is that this defeat of the King of the Hill will unleash a new wave of conservative cowardice. Because by far the greatest cause of the congressional dysfunction we’ve seen stems from the knee-buckling terror that Republican representatives feel from even the prospect of a primary challenge.
There’s a reason Congress has a 9% approval rating and a 90% re-election rate – the rigged system of redistricting has created 400-or so safe seats – meaning that the only chance the our self-interested public servants on the GOP side of the aisle have of losing their congressional perks comes from facing a right-wing primary challenge. As the liberal former congressman Barney Frank quipped, “Half of them are Michele Bachmann. The other half are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann.”
In other words, Eric Cantor just lost his primary to Michele Bachmann. This will not not confidence inspiring for those reform Republicans who want to return to being a party that can be trusted with governing.
So while President Obama might be smiling at the fate of his vanquished foe and Speaker Boehner enjoying an extra glass of Merlot, Eric Cantor’s defeat promises even more congressional dysfunction. The shock will soon congeal into fear-fueled groupthink and gridlock.
The House GOP will again overlook the lesson the Gentleman from Virginia learned too late: there’s no appeasing absolutists.