Shocking does not mean significant

The media has been all agog about the defeat of Eric Cantor in his primary race and drawing all manner of sweeping conclusions. Is the Tea Party coming back to life after everyone declared it dead? Does this signal the end of any attempt at immigration reform? Does this mean that any Republican who deviates even the slightest from unwavering opposition to anything that president Obama and the Democratic party propose is now likely to be defeated?

Political analyst Norm Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute says that this result signals that the old GOP divisions between moderates and conservatives are long gone and that we should get ready for a much more extremist party.

Now it is different. There are no moderates or progressives in today’s GOP; the fight is between hard-line conservatives who believe in smaller government and radical nihilists who want to blow up the whole thing, who have as much disdain for Republican traditional conservatives as they do for liberals.

In our 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Tom Mann and I described the Republican Party as an “insurgent outlier.” That is even more true today. The energy and driving force in the party, in its House membership, media dominance, caucus and primary electorates and financial backers, is not its conservative wing but its radical side.

While I agree with Ornstein in his general view, I am not sure that I see any deep significance in this particular result. After all, the number of voters in off-presidential year primaries is so low that there can be a lot of variability in the results due to statistical fluctuations. There were many Tea Party challenges to establishment candidates and maybe this outcome was the statistical outlier where a confluence of factors resulted in Cantor’s ouster.

The fact that he was so prominent may garner a lot of attention and discussion but it does not mean that the result can be interpreted as some major message delivered by the voters. The fact that he was a party leader and those people almost never get voted out in primaries is being seen as particularly significant. Incumbents in party leadership positions are thought to be safer because their influence can bring back a lot of pork to their districts. But some low-information voters think that the new person they elect will fill the same leadership spot as the outgoing person, instead of going to the bottom of the pecking order.

But we need shed no tears for Cantor. I fully expect him to become wealthy as a lobbyist as soon as he leaves office at the end of the year. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report tells us that David Brat, the person who defeated Cantor, wasted no time in playing the Jesus card.

(These clips aired on June 11, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ornstein: … not its conservative wing but its radical side.

    (Warning: pet peeve rant) Its extreme side, please. Ornstein, having scholarly pretensions, should know that “radical” grows from the word “root” and signifies that, say, Communists wanting to change ownership of the means of production intend deep social transformation. Our current crop of teabaggers don’t seem to even perceive such levels, but react on increasingly superficial bases such as being against anything liberals are for.

    As for the fall of Cantor *smirk giggle nyah-nyah-nyah* -- our esteemed host notes correctly that this has a lot to do with low voter turnout in non-presidential elections. Cantor neglected to motivate his base; the baggers pushed their crew nonstop.

    The lesson many Repubs will take from this upset: do NOT touch immigration reform with a ten-mile pole. This, as Talking Points Memo observes (no link to avoid tripping FtB filters), will cost them nearly all the Hispanic vote, and thus possibly the White House in 2016. (Unless they find some way to cheat -- again…)

  2. Mobius says

    Rachel Maddow made the case that Cantor wasn’t ousted for any particular political issue, or that the Tea Party candidate was immensely popular, but that Cantor lost because he is immensely UNpopular with his constituency. That lack of popularity has mostly to do with Cantor working on the national stage and pretty much ignoring his home district.

    @Pierce R. Butler…

    It doesn’t appear that the voters were actually supporting Brat’s anti-immigration platform. However, Brat’s position is certainly going to work against the Republican Party and its relationship with Hispanics. Most Republicans are not against immigration reform. But there is a strident minority voice that is very definitely anti-immigration and that has become the public face of the party. And rather than trying to repair the rift, more moderate Republicans seem cowed by the extreme right and continue to block any efforts at reform.

  3. Konradius says

    What if he runs as an independent while the party refuses support to the wingnut? Presumably his district is gerrymandered enough to ignore the democratic candidate and he can rejoin the republicans as soon as he wins on name recognition…

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Marcus Ranum #1: Isn’t all news “newsworthy” by definition?

    Remarkable is one of my favourite words for similar reasons. It is self-fulfilling.

  5. Mano Singham says


    Virginia has a ‘sore loser‘ law that prevents people who run and lose in the primaries from running in the general election as an independent with his name on the ballot.

    He could run as a write-in candidate but that is an uphill task and he has ruled it out, likely fearing another humiliating defeat.

  6. Holms says

    These clips were great, but somewhat spoiled by the fact that one audience member had a laugh that was not only louder than everyone else’s, but also much more irritating, and goddamn continuous.


  7. doublereed says

    Cenk Uygur’s commentary was shocking. Point one: this is the first time a House Majority Leader has lost a primary. Point two: the reason he lost was not because of anything to do with immigration, but because Brat talked almost exclusively about corruption and how Cantor was nothing more than a corporate shill. He ran as a anti-corporate populist. And that actually works.

  8. colnago80 says

    Re Mano Singham @ #6

    Running as a write in candidate, although admittedly difficulty is not unprecedented. Alaska Senator Murkowski was primaried in 2010 by a teabagger opponent and was defeated in the Rethuglican primary. She ran as a write int candidate and won in the general election.