House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's defeat in last Tuesday's Republican primary was a bona fide political earthquake. Majority leaders simply don't lose in their own primaries. Part of the reason people are picked for chamber leadership positions is that they're usually from safe districts and don't really have to worry about what's going on at home so they can focus on events in the Capitol. And presumably people within the district, particularly activists within their own party, recognize the value of being represented by the majority leader. He can bring federal dollars home to the district in a way that most other members simply can't. Voters in the Virginia 7th willingly traded those benefits away. That's interesting and rare.
But what's the Big Lesson to draw from all of this? There may just not be one. You could argue that this shows what happens when members ignore their constituents, but Cantor was hardly the worst offender on this front (although some anecdotes sound pretty bad, and maybe you shouldn't wear Italian loafers when you represent a rural district). He regularly won his district handily with minimal opposition within his party in prior elections. Why were his constituents suddenly offended now?
You could also argue that this shows how politically toxic immigration reform is, although other members of Congress, like Lindsey Graham, have taken stances similar to Cantor's and still won their primaries handily. Others have claimed that Cantor's being Jewish in a district with many rural Southern voters may have caused problems for him, but again, why now?
Cantor's pollster appears to have been shockingly bad at, well, polling. Cantor outspent his opponent David Brat by about a 40:1 margin, but the bulk of that went to staff salaries and administrative expenses.
This could also be taken as evidence that primaries are forcing officeholders into increasingly extreme stances. After all, no other incumbents want to be in Cantor's position, and they'll likely take steps to ensure their more extreme activist groups that they stand with them. Yet as Robert Boatright points out, this lesson may not be accurate, either. Primaries are no more common now than they were a few decades ago, and primary challenges are as likely to come from the middle as from the extremes. Incumbents may well believe that ideological primary challenges (particularly from the Tea Party) are on the rise, and they may well act in accordance with those beliefs, but the evidence doesn't actually bear it out.
This could also be seen as a case of simple campaign mismanagement. Cantor's pollster appears to have been shockingly bad at, well, polling. Cantor outspent his opponent David Brat by about a 40:1 margin, but the bulk of that went to staff salaries and administrative expenses. Even though he apparently believed he was up by more than 30 points, Cantor still inexplicably decided to go negative on Brat, running ham-handed attacks on the conservative economics professor. And maybe those ads gave needless exposure to Brat, who otherwise had little money to get his name in front of voters. But could that come close to explaining Brat's 10-point victory over a long-term incumbent? Not likely.
The simple fact is, as Sarah Binder and Kyle Kondik point out, there are quirks to local elections that are just hard to predict or model. Political scientists draw most of their observations about American elections from relatively high turnout general elections. There is a great deal of regularity in elections like these, with factors like economic growth and presidential popularity weighing heavily over the outcomes and more district-specific factors like the candidate's personality or campaign style usually not moving the needle much, if at all.
But this election was a primary, meaning voters weren't voting along party lines, and it was a pretty low turnout affair, with just 14 percent of eligible voters showing up. A prominent endorsement, an enthusiastic local Tea Party chapter, even a modest gaffe can end up making a big difference in the outcome. Members of Congress still enjoy, if not tenure, something close to it; even in anti-incumbent years, the vast majority of them will keep their jobs. But once in a while, weird stuff happens.
So if there is a lesson there, perhaps it's for parties and voters to prepare for the weird stuff. Conservative activists probably didn't think they had much of a chance of taking down the House Majority Leader in a primary, but it happened, and now they're stuck with their nominee, David Brat. He may well turn out to be a solid candidate, but that's far from obvious right now. Similarly, the Democratic organization in the Virginia 7th, to the extent one exists, no doubt didn't think seriously about recruiting someone to run against Cantor, and they ended up with sociologist Jack Trammell, Brat's colleague at Randolph-Macon College. Trammell's chances of winning went from zero (against Cantor) to something only slightly above zero (against Brat). And who knows—Brat could completely melt down. These two have no political experience and we really don't know how they'll behave when the world starts dissecting their backgrounds. But their parties are stuck with them.
Members of Congress only lose once in a blue moon. But it's good to have a blue moon plan.