A political typhoon has just struck in one of America’s primary elections, upending established political expectations and throwing the Republican Party into a tizzy. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look.
As the venerable old version of The New Republic magazine likely would have put it: “Old conventional wisdom – the Tea Party is history and the Establishment is back; New conventional wisdom – the Tea Party just ate the GOP’s lunch.” And supper, and likely next morning’s breakfast as well.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the charismatically challenged Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell had soundly beaten his Tea Party-style challenger, and a number of other races had come out similarly. As a result, the cosmic primary election zeitgeist had it that the Tea Party’s wave had crested, and the Republican Establishment (absolutely spelt with a capital ‘E’) had awakened from its slumber and arisen to smite its in-house tormentors. Throwing enough money, muscle and momentum at the problem, they had finally figured out how to beat off such insurgent-style challengers so as to prevent extreme candidates from seizing wins in primaries that could lead to losses in the general election.
Time out. Not so fast, it seems. Eric Cantor, a veteran congressman who virtually personified the conservative-leaning thoroughly establishment-style power in the House of Representatives, by virtue of his position as Republican Majority Leader, was beaten soundly in the Republican primary in the Virginia seventh congressional district. And this was in a district where Cantor had destroyed his opponent two years earlier, winning over 70% of the primary election vote – and routinely and thoroughly beating his Democratic challengers over the years.
Describing Cantor’s drubbing, Time magazine has written, “Washington never saw it coming. He was supposed to be the next Speaker of the House. Instead, Eric Cantor lost to a Tea Party challenger in resounding fashion Tuesday, an almost unprecedented defeat of an incumbent majority leader in a primary race. As the party leaders grasped for answers and conservatives gloated, one thing was undeniable: The defeat of the Virginia Republican was a wake-up call for establishment Republicans who only days ago thought they had finally put down the Tea Party insurgency that has rocked the GOP the past four years. ‘[It’s a] serious wake up call to all incumbents,’ said Scott Reed, the top political strategist for the establishment-friendly Chamber of Commerce. ‘Time for candidates to run like they are running for sheriff… not prime minister.’ ” Cantor vastly outspent Brat in his campaign, but, ultimately, it just didn’t matter.
This time around, with an additional twenty thousand or so additional voters joining in the primary election, the libertarian, Tea Party-style candidate, David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph Macon University, delivered an astonishing body blow to the Republican establishment that will now ripple straight through this entire election cycle. And in the process, Brat’s victory has so profoundly shaken up the governing hierarchy of the House of Representatives that it will put a brake on virtually every bit of legislation or even the consideration of possible legislation, at the very least until the new Congress comes into office in January 2015. Now that Cantor has said he will step down from his leadership position in July, his defeat has set off a scramble for Cantor’s position, especially since it was widely assumed in Washington that he was very well-placed to ease into John Boehner’s job as Speaker of the House, come January 2015.
Photo: Dave Brat (www.davebratforcongress.com)
Commenting just after the results were confirmed, leading political journalist Chris Cillizza observed, “The defeat of the second-ranking Republican in the House by an ill-funded, little-known tea party-backed candidate ranks as the biggest congressional upset in modern memory and will immediately generate a series of political and policy-related shock waves in Washington and the Richmond-area 7th District. ‘People don’t know how to respond because it’s never been contemplated,’ said one Virginia Republican strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly about Cantor’s loss. (Worth noting: Cantor didn’t just lose. He got walloped; David Brat, his challenger, won 56 percent to 44 percent.) In conversations with a handful of GOP operatives in the aftermath of Cantor’s loss – a loss blamed largely on an inept campaign consulting team that misread the level of vitriol directed at the candidate due to his place in Republican leadership and the perception he supported so-called ‘amnesty’ for illegal immigrants – there were several common threads about what it means for politics inside and outside the House.”
This election was about a growing perception Cantor was no longer so terribly engaged with his district – in comparison to his exalted Washington status (an all-too-common cause of primary defeats) – and that he was squishy soft on an immigration amnesty. Immigration – and especially any solution that somehow ropes in all those illegal immigrants/undocumented aliens with a path towards regularisation of status – has become a hot-button emotive issue for many on the Republican right or deep inside the Tea Party echo chamber. And, given how Brat managed to paint Cantor, they came out in their numbers to tell Cantor just what they thought about him. In November, Brat will face Democrat Jack Trammell, a fellow Randolph-Macon professor, in the general election in this Republican district. While Cantor had been a prohibitive favourite – if he had won his primary – this is now a rather more interesting congressional race than it had been, up until 10 June.
As far as Cantor’s perceived distancing from his district and the feeling that he had become a part of a despised Washington political machine, he was pummelled electorally for things like skipping attendance at the annual shad planking – a kind of barbeque/political speechifying event. Really. Shad is a particularly tasty fish that inhabits the Virginia rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay, and by skipping that party to attend a fundraiser in DC with the lobbyists and bundlers inhabiting Washington, the local voters seemed to take it as a sign Cantor had distanced himself fatally from them and their concerns. Years ago, long time Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill had famously said that in America, ultimately, “all politics is local” – and he was proved right yet again, to Cantor’s detriment.
As for Brat, besides his opposition to any form of immigration reform, just what are his hot-button views? Mother Jones (admittedly unlikely to be a supporter of Brat) said in their in-depth profile, “A quick review of his public statements reveals a fellow who is about as tea party as can be. He appears to endorse slashing Medicare and Social Security payouts to seniors by two-thirds. He wants to dissolve the IRS [the US tax man]. And he has called for drastic cuts to education funding, explaining ‘My hero Socrates trained in Plato on a rock. How much did that cost? So the greatest minds in history became the greatest minds in history without spending a lot of money.’ ”
Mother Jones went on to say, “An economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in central Virginia, Brat frequently has repeated the conservative canard that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae [the quasi-SOE’s that underwrote many of the country’s mortgage bonds] brought down the housing market by handling the vast majority of subprime mortgages. That is, he absolves Big Finance and the banks of responsibility for the financial crisis that triggered the recession, which hammered middle-class and low-income families across the country. (In fact, as the housing bubble grew, Freddie and Fannie shed their subprime holdings, while banks grabbed more.) In his campaign speeches, Brat has pointed out that he isn’t worried about climate change because ‘rich countries solve their problems.’ ‘If you let Americans do their thing, there is no scarcity, right? They said we’re going to run out of food 200 years ago, that we’re goin’ to have a ice age. Now we’re heating up…Of course we care for the environment, but we’re not mad people. Over time, rich countries solve their problems. We get it right. It’s not all perfect, but we get it right.’ He did not say what might happen to not-so-rich countries due to climate change and the consequent rise in sea levels, droughts, and extreme weather.”
Already, just a day after this shock result, the experts and analysts were noting key outcomes from Cantor’s smack down. First of all, any form of immigration reform is now dead. Dead. Dead. Much worse than Marley ever was. As Cillizza notes (and others have reiterated), “Cantor’s loss ensures that even chatter about making minor changes will disappear. Anytime an incumbent loses – and particularly a well-funded incumbent like Cantor – there are lots of reasons for the defeat, but this one will be cast as a rebuke of any moderation on immigration.”
In any case, more generally, any real activity in the House of Representatives will cease to happen as things slowly sort themselves out – messily. Republicans will now spend their time avoiding doing anything that could be used against them in any of the still-upcoming primaries, let alone in the general mid-term election in November.
Further, as noted right up at the top, the prevailing storyline that the establishment is back, large and in charge, is now firmly at an end – at least until the wheel turns again. In the past week or so, besides Cantor’s embarrassment, Mississippi Senator Chad Cochran has been forced into an awkward run-off with a little-known challenger as well.
Moreover, Brat’s victory will embolden other Tea Party challengers eager to knock off yet other establishment-style Republican incumbents. As Joe Carr, a serious conservative trying to shove aside the well-entrenched incumbent (and relatively modestly conservative, for Republicans) Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, told a crowd, “What we have seen tonight in Virginia shows that no race should be taken for granted and all the money and position in the world doesn’t resonate with an electorate that is fed up with a Washington establishment that has abandoned conservative principle.” Brat’s beating of Cantor will likely give even more hope to other Tea Party types for 2016.
Within the House of Representatives Republican caucus itself, the race to replace Speaker Boehner is now going to degenerate into something of an unseemly free-for-all. Boehner’s heir apparent, Cantor, has been defenestrated by a conservative uprising in a district that went strongly Republican in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential races; but the next person in the pecking order, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, is not someone the Tea Party is in love with either. As a result, there will be a range of claimants for Cantor’s party position and – perhaps – even for John Boehner’s job.
Now, does any of this almost-certain in-fighting among the Republican congressional caucus mean anything at all for countries like South Africa? Well, first of all, the almost guaranteed absence of any further progress of real legislation in the House of Representatives until next year is likely to have real negatives on any progress on the renewal or extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. This law expires in 2015 and it has become particularly important for duty-free exports from Africa into America for thousands of products (let alone immigration or climate issues).
Because this piece of legislation could easily be portrayed as a measure that eliminates jobs in America, at a time when economic recovery is still a halting one, AGOA will likely go far back in the queue for any preliminary action or hearings, let alone anything like a final vote. Concurrently, one can just about kiss goodbye any other innovative measures on trade or foreign assistance, at least until after the new Republican caucus in Congress figures out where it wants to go. Of course, if the Republicans gain control over the Senate as well as the House, this will be a real recipe for two-party gridlock for the remainder of Barack Obama’s term of office. This will mean presidential initiatives will only be of the small-ball, presidential executive order variety.
That, of course, means it must be incumbent on the African nations to present a much more effective presence in Washington as a group, explaining in real, tangible ways why policy efforts directed towards Africa, whether on international security, trade or development assistance must also redound to the benefit of the US – and how it would do that. Sadly, however, that kind of sustained representation is something that has largely eluded African nations in the past. They will now have to step up their game. DM
Photo: US House Majority Leader, Republican from Virginia Eric Cantor, holds a news conference where he announced his resignation effective 31 July, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA, 11 June 2014. Cantor lost the Republican primary in a major upset to challenger Dave Brat. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine