The stunning primary defeat of Eric Cantor this week was, by any metaphoric measure, an enormous event: an earthquake, a volcanic explosion, a political tsunami.
But, at bottom, it also underscored some of the essential truths of politics, none more so than that old chestnut — oft-quoted and ascribed to the late ex-House Speaker Tip O’Neill — that all politics is local.
And, it might be added as a corollary, woe to the politician — whatever the office or their presumed import — who takes re-election, and by extension the people he or she represents, for granted.
Rep. Cantor of Virginia was the No. 2 Republican in the House leadership and, both logically and politically, the heir to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. There was even talk of Cantor someday running for president and, if his dreams were realized, becoming the first Jewish president in the country’s history.
However, that leadership position and Cantor’s unrequited ambition meant a great deal of time and travel away from his district, which left him ripe for attack by his underfunded, little-regarded challenger, college professor David Brat.
That argument — that a lawmaker has lost touch with the folks back home — is another old political standby; it produced a similarly historic upset in 1994 by Republican George Nethercutt, who ousted then-House Speaker Tom Foley in the national GOP wave.
“We need a listener,” Nethercutt repeatedly told voters, “not a speaker.”
Cantor had the burden, as do all congressional leaders, of serving dual masters, his constituents and the national needs of his party. Those are increasingly diverging in a GOP split between what might be called, for simplicity’s sake, the pragmatists and the purists.
Too late did Cantor realize the strength of Brat and, more broadly, voters’ disdain for the type of give-and-take required of someone in Cantor’s position. A last minute blast of ads that underscored his concern went nowhere.
“This is the grass roots flexing its muscle and reminding members of the Republican leadership — and reminding all Republicans — that this is a very conservative party at the grass-roots and they’re angry,” said Stuart Rothenberg, who analyzes campaigns nationwide for his nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
“And they care more about their anger and expressing their anger and electing someone who will express their anger than they are about electing someone who gets the best deal in negotiations with the White House or the Senate.”