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Had he campaigned at home and spent Election Day there, instead of with lobbyists at a Capitol Hill fundraiser in Starbucks, the outcome might have been different for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, analysts said on Wednesday as his astonishing primary loss sunk in.
Cantor, R-Va., underestimated the anti-Washington sentiment among voters in his 7th Congressional District, said Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based Republican strategist.
"What this race tells me is that people do not care about seniority as an argument for re-election, or how high up you are in leadership," Haynes said. "They care that who they send to Washington is ‘one of us.’ "
Cantor, 51, who has represented the Richmond suburbs since 2001, said he would step down as majority leader by July 31. He lost on Tuesday by 11 percentage points to political novice David Brat, an economics and ethics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland — believed to be the first majority leader in history from either party to lose his seat in a primary contest, according to the House historian.
"He spent $168,000 on steakhouses, and Brat’s campaign spent $200,000 on the whole race," Haynes said. "The message here is that shoe leather beats steakhouses."
Most experts had predicted an easy win for Cantor and anticipated he eventually would inherit the speaker’s gavel from Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Though some pundits quickly jumped on Brat’s accusation that Cantor dragged his feet on immigration reform as a main reason for his downfall, Haynes and others believe Cantor simply became an unpopular leader. He has voted to increase border security and opposed immigration reform measures like the DREAM Act.
In an interview by phone with MSNBC, Brat noted that immigration became an easy stump speech issue but was not the only aspect of his campaign.
"I ran on the fiscal issues and the Republican creed, which starts off with the main thing I’m interested in — and that’s a commitment to free markets," Brat said.
Brat’s campaign website pushed the message: "Our founders knew that good government required wise leaders with good character. … We do have a say in our political system. We do have the power to work together to change course."
Although seniority and influence can help force passage of legislation to benefit constituents, becoming a Beltway insider ultimately hurt Cantor, said Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University.
Cantor spent much of his time outside of his district, and he crisscrossed the country helping GOP candidates raise money, likely with an eye on becoming House speaker, analysts said. That may have built resentment among his constituents who wanted a congressman who was connected with them, and not the face of the Republican Party or Washington, they said.
Mickey White, 39, whose hometown of Midlothian is in Cantor’s district, said she supported and voted for him in the last election but suspected he was heading toward a loss.
"It’s important to understand that this has been a long time coming for Cantor," she said. "I didn’t realize until 2009 just how deep the hatred for him was in certain corners of the party."
White believes the disconnect began with his vote for TARP legislation, the 2008 financial bailout that authorized hundreds of billions of dollars in expenditures. But other issues were more personal for people, she explained: "He didn’t hold town halls; he didn’t keep appointments."
White, a founding member of the Richmond Tea Party, has cooled on the movement’s activism since the 2010 midterm elections. "My positions haven’t changed," she said, "but I don’t know what I would call myself at this point."
And she is skeptical of Brat because, as a professor, "his life’s work is in theory."
"Brat, at this point, is all well-crafted rhetoric," White said. "I don’t just trust people at their word any more in politics."
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer.