Cantor’s loss offers lesson to lawmakers

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The political autopsy of U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat to a little-know tea party challenger has found no shortage of reasons for the shocking election upset.

Cantor, the House majority leader, lost by 11 percentage points to economics professor David Brat in Virginia’s GOP primary election last week. Pundits and the political class were quick to blame immigration reform for Cantor’s loss, but the seven-term congressman was anything but a champion of immigration reform, although Brat did galvanize conservative activists with accusations that Cantor had betrayed conservative principles in that regard.

Cantor certainly was hurt by the anti-incumbent feelings and anger at Congress stoked by tea party groups, feelings further fueled by his leadership position and ties to the Republican establishment. And Cantor had been walking a delicate balance between that establishment and conservative GOP insurgents in the House, often trying – usually unsuccessfully – to bridge the widening gap between the two opposing factions.

And overconfidence certainly played a role in the upset, with Cantor’s internal polls showing him ahead in the race by more than 30 points. Perhaps those polls reflected just how out of touch Cantor and his team were with his home district.

Cantor had just a 30 percent approval rating in his conservative 7th District. Spending much of his time raising money for fellow House Republicans and working behind the Washington scenes to help cobble some sort of consensus in the fractious Republican majority left him little time to spend in his home district. And he was often accused of falling considerably short in constituent services.

Running as an overconfident, unpopular incumbent in a low turn-out, midterm GOP primary certainly was a perfect recipe for defeat. Perhaps the most telling sign of how out of touch Cantor was with his constituents was his total surprise at the loss.