Eric Cantor’s primary loss yesterday to unknown candidate, David Brat, was quite the spectacle. A House majority leader has never lost a primary battle. Almost immediately after his loss, media outlets began reporting that Cantor lost because he had taken a pro-immigration stance on immigration reform (or failed to take a strong position on the issue either way).
Given what we know about which factors influence election outcomes in the United States, I find it very hard to believe that Eric Cantor so handily lost a primary battle (56% to 44%) just because of his position on one issue, immigration reform. Cantor was a seven term incumbent. He was the House majority leader. He spent about $5 million on his campaign. His opponent, Brat, was a complete unknown who only spent less than $200,000 on his campaign. But Brat was anti-immigration and this allowed him to so easily defeat Cantor?
I do not think Cantor lost solely because of immigration reform. I think he also lost (1) because of his role in the government shutdown last fall, (2) because Virginia was overwhelming hurt by the government shutdown, and (3) because the Virginia state government is currently in the middle of its own government shutdown crisis – a crisis that could have reminded moderate voters of Cantor’s actions last fall and discouraged them from going to the voting booths to support him.
Eric Cantor’s Role in the Government Shutdown
Recall that the Federal government shutdown last fall occurred because (1) there was a budget impasse and (2) House Republicans would not agree to continue to funding the government unless the Senate agreed to simultaneously pass anti-Affordable Care Act (ACA) legislation. Eric Cantor played a key role in this process. He was the one person in the House of Representatives who had the ability to decide whether the House could consider legislation that would re-opened the Federal government. (House Resolution 368 gave Cantor (or his designee) the sole control over any motions in the House related to the resolution that would have continued to fund the government (House Joint Resolution 59)). Even when it was clear that there were enough votes in the House to end the shutdown, Cantor still would not budge on the issue.
The Consequences of the Shutdown
The economic effects of the government shutdown were far reaching. Over a million federal employees lost pay for over two weeks. Several tech companies that had contracts with the Federal government had to stop paying some of their employees and send them home. Head start programs temporarily lost funding and many low-income families lost access to WIC benefits. According to some estimates, the shutdown cost the US economy $24 billion.
Blame for the Shutdown
Ultimately, voters ended up blaming the Republican Party for the government shutdown. This included Republican voters as well. They overwhelmingly blamed their own party leaders, especially ones that worked with the Tea Party (e.g. Cantor). (Republicans also equally blamed Obama as well).
The negative effect of the shutdown on the Republican Party’s image was was especially strong in Virginia (Cantor’s home state), since the state was hit hard by the shutdown. The shutdown left a lot of Virginians without a paycheck and took a great deal of money out of the state economy. And it was clear at the time of the shutdown that Virginia voters were far more likely to blame Republicans than Democrats for the shutdown. Republicans may have even lost a gubernatorial race because Virginia voters blamed them for the shutdown.
During the time of the shutdown, Eric Cantor received a great deal of blame in Virginia for his role in the process. A Democratic Representative from Virginia, Jim Moran, publicly chastised Cantor, claiming that he was was directly responsible for the problems the state was facing due to the shutdown:
“Hardest-hit state in the nation,” Moran said. “Yet the one person holding this up is the person who represents the state capital, who is the majority leader of the House.”
Another Democratic Representative from Virginia, Gerry Connolly, also publicly blamed Cantor:
“Our people are hurting… The power all along … has been in the hands of a Virginian. Eric Cantor. So we call on him to use that power and allow a vote to reopen the government and to stop the suffering of our fellow Virginians.”
Virginia State Politics
The Federal government shutdown is re-playing itself at the state level in Virginia this year. The story is similar to what occurred last fall. There is a budget impasse. The impasse is due to the implementation of the ACA in Virginia. The State Senate Democrats want to expand Medicaid (as a way to further implement the ACA) whereas the State House Republicans are against it. If there is no compromise, the Virginia state government will shut down on July 1st. If the government shuts down, thousands of state government employees may not receive paychecks and local governments will have limited funds. (It seems like the state legislature averted this crisis on Monday by “questionable” tactics- but that is the subject of another post).
When the Virginia budget crisis was just beginning in the spring, about 39% of Virginia voters were worried about a state government shutdown. That number has probably increased since then, especially since we are just weeks away from the July 1st shutdown deadline. If another shutdown is foremost in the minds of Virginia voters, the memories of the government shutdown last fall may be foremost in voters’ minds. As a result, it is possible that some moderate voters failed to come out yesterday to support Cantor because they are punishing him for his actions last fall. This may not be the sole reason Cantor lost, but I think it could be a factor in his defeat.