In what will go down as one of the most shocking upsets in the history of politics, Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, lost his Republican primary for another term in office. Cantor was widely considered a conservative and potential right-wing threat to Speaker John Boehner. Cantor embraced the tea party early into its inception and for some time was seen as a major leader of the movement in the House. However, the tea party that Cantor nurtured came back to bite his face off tonight. Cantor started getting attacks for being too entrenched in the establishment. While issues like immigration came up (Cantor favored some aspects of reform), the sense to me is that Cantor was overall being attacked for having “gone Washington.” Cantor faced college professor David Brat this year. He took the threat seriously, attacking Brat and trying to sure up his conservative credentials. Polling all showed Cantor leading. The real question going into the election was simply how close Cantor’s race would be. The idea of a loss, considering Cantor’s powerful position and the money he spent, seemed unthinkable. While Brat raised $200,000, Cantor raised $2 million or more. Cantor didn’t go door to door, but he ran TV and mailers, showing he took the threat seriously. However, Cantor, who’s technocratic attitude never did mesh well with his district (partly rural, partly suburban), came up short. Cantor was no doubt counting on the Richmond suburbs of Henrico county and the city itself to hold on. However, Cantor only got 54% in Richmond and lost Henrico, his home base. Cantor won some counties in the north that are part of the North Virginia suburbs. He was killed in the rural counties between the northern suburbs and the Richmond metro area.
Some have speculated that Cantor lost due to the open primary, that dems voted in the race with the point of ousting him. However, that does not appear to be the case. Virginia doesn’t register people by party, so I use a different test. I looked at how these precincts voted in the 2013 GOV race. Areas that supported Democrat Terry McAuliffe voted to oust Cantor, but so did the most anti McAuliffe (thus with few dems in the area) voted to oust Cantor. (See Scatterplot on lower right). Brat didn’t need dems to win the areas, especially the rural, heavily Republican counties that he did.
Redistricting also appears to not be the cause. Cantor’s district became more compact in the 2011-2012 redistricting, with 88% of the new districts population being from his old one. Among the newly added areas, Cantor got 46% of the vote, slightly better than his district as a whole. Cantor did very well in the areas he got from Spotsylvania but did poorly with the areas added from New Kent County. Overall, redistricting was not the problem for Cantor.
Turnout differences also appear not to have effected the results. Cantor’s support didn’t show a clear correlation with higher or lower turnout (see scatterplot on upper right).
Cantor wasn’t asleep in this race. He knew he had a race. Yet despite the money and power, he lost to a some-dude level challenger. Everyone though the establishment wing had won the civil war in the GOP after a string of wins earlier in the primaries. However, tonight, the Tea Party struck back hard.