photo by Gage Skidmore
Our nation’s founders did not give us a bicameral Congress because they believed watching two sets of lawmakers in action would be twice the fun. They surely knew better.
The Senate and the House of Representatives were designed to serve very different purposes. The Senate was to be the worldly body, in which wise men were sent by their legislatures (we did not have direct Senate elections until the 17th Amendment passed in 1913) to serve six-year terms on behalf of their sovereign states and commonwealths. In the Senate, small states had the same vote and voice as such 18th-century power centers as Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts and New York. The Senate developed its ponderous traditions as the legislative counterweight to the presidency’s potential accumulation of imperial power.
On the other side of the Capitol, the “people’s House” was different. Representatives were drawn from districts of roughly equal population and given only two-year terms, so that they would remain almost perpetually in a state of running for re-election. Got a problem? The classic American response is “call your congressman” (or congresswoman, nowadays). You don’t call the president; he’s too busy running the country. You don’t call your senator; he or she is too busy telling the president how to run the country. You call your representative in the House, and he or she will fix your problem, or try to fix your problem, or at least tell you that despite the representative’s best efforts, your problem can’t be fixed.
This is parochial politics - by design. Despite all the blather we hear about gridlock and polarization and the influence of money in government, it is why most Americans still believe there is someone in a position of some authority in Washington, D.C., who will take their calls, read their emails, answer their tweets and plead their case. A Member, as representatives like to call themselves, who neglects these duties does so at risk of sudden unemployment.
Keep this in mind as you ingest the post-mortems on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s unexpected defeat this week in a Republican primary against little-known economics professor David Brat.
Despite the fact that almost nobody forecast Cantor’s loss - even Brat and his closest aides seemed surprised - a narrative of conventional wisdom sprang up almost instantly to explain how it happened. Democrats and journalists sympathetic to them hypothesized that this might be the beginning of a long-expected “tea party” wave of Republican insurgent victories, though the tea party label is one that Brat himself has rejected. By defining Republicans as either captives of the tea party or as interchangeable with it, and by casting the tea party (a grassroots reaction to exploding federal spending and deficits that began in 2010) as the opponent of sound policy on everything from immigration to climate change, Democrats hope to find something to run on this year that does not contain the words Affordable Care Act.
Republicans seemed a bit closer to the mark in their assessment that the fault may have lain not with Cantor’s stars, but with himself. He lost by just over 7,000 votes to a rival who spent barely $200,000 on the entire campaign. (The New York Times dryly noted that Cantor’s campaign reported spending nearly that much just on steakhouses.) Some basic political footwork, such as a more organized drive to turn out supporters or to encourage them to vote absentee, might have saved Cantor.
So, also, might have a more aggressive strategy, such as having supporters encourage a second anti-Cantor candidate to enter the primary. This would have split the ABC (“Anyone But Cantor”) vote and almost certainly denied Brat his victory. Instead, Cantor opened the campaign by trying to paint Brat as too liberal for the district.
This may have made sense in some places or in a general election, but Virginia’s primaries are open to voters affiliated with any party, or none at all. Cantor’s ads may actually have enticed some Democrats and independents to go to the polls to vote for Brat.
Still, it was clear from some earlier setbacks at county GOP conventions in Cantor’s district that he was not popular with his own party’s base. This is where we return to the observation that the House is all about parochial politics.
Cantor’s Seventh District stretches from the edge of Richmond to the southern border of Fredericksburg, about 50 miles north, and westward across farms and woodlands to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Culturally and politically, it is the northern fringe of the South. On the other side of Fredericksburg lie the suburbs of Washington D.C., where newly built express lanes on Interstate 95 carry commuters who work for the Obama administration’s agencies in Washington and for the many contractors who do business with the government.
Those burgeoning suburbs have tilted the balance of power in Virginia. Obama carried the state in the past two elections, and Democrats have won three of the past four races for governor. These developments are surely unpopular in the solidly Republican, conservative Seventh District.
The district is less than 5 percent Hispanic. Immigration, and particularly opposition to the acceptance of those living in the country illegally, thus became an issue in the GOP primary, though Cantor has tried to straddle the question of whether to grant residents without documentation a path to legal status. Many also blamed Cantor for the GOP’s capitulation in the budget showdown that led to last fall’s partial shutdown of the federal government.
But Cantor’s deeper problem is that he was a congressman who tried to act like a senator. He was openly angling to become John Boehner’s successor as House speaker. His leadership role gave him a responsibility not to undermine Republicans elsewhere, and especially Republican Senate candidates running in places where being fervently anti-immigrant is not helpful. Cantor could have made the case to his constituents that he could do much more to advance their positions if the GOP captured the Senate, and subsequently won the White House in 2016. Instead, he committed the cardinal sin for a House member: taking his re-election for granted. And thus, Cantor became the first sitting majority leader to be denied his own party’s renomination.
Brat is a serious man who nobody took seriously until now. (He and I started careers at Arthur Andersen at the same time, in 1986, though we never crossed paths. He was a computer consultant and I was in the tax division, and we worked 300 miles apart.) He has a master's degree in divinity and a doctorate in economics, has published dozens of scholarly articles, and has an extensive background in education policy, with a particular interest in educating underprivileged children. While Cantor clearly contributed a lot to his own defeat, don’t undersell his constituents. It may turn out that they picked the more substantial candidate to represent them.
In fact, Brat might make good Senate material someday. But first he has to get elected, and then learn his lessons in the parochial school we call the House of Representatives.