Major media outlets are missing a major aspect of why House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor was defeated Tuesday night, grassroots Virginia activists tell The Daily Caller.
When Cantor was defeated by his primary challenger Tuesday night, the national pundits looked confused. They hadn’t prepped for this moment, and most political watchers hadn’t even followed the race.
“Well, [Insert anchor's name,]” the average guest opined. “The conventional wisdom suggests that Eric Cantor was defeated because of his support for immigration reform, and this is sure to send a chilling message to moderate Republicans and GOP business interests,” etc.
Except the “conventional wisdom” just hours before had been that Mr. Cantor was moments from sailing to victory. And that was wrong.
“Those who attribute Cantor’s loss to immigration reform know little about Virginia politics and what’s gone on in the state over the past two years or so,” Americans for Tax Reform State Affairs Manager Paul Blair told TheDC.
“Amnesty was only part of Dave Brat’s victory,” longtime conservative leader and “Takeover” author Richard Viguerie told TheDC.
So what, then, made this primary challenge so different from previous challenges?
Simply put: Grassroots anger at a Washington power player meddling in Virginia politics with a heavy hand and a disregard for his base. While other leadership candidates, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, spent months courting tea party and base voters, Cantor’s team turned on them in a sustained and unsuccessful campaign that culminated in his Tuesday night defeat.
It was the attempts by the Cantor team and other establishment Republicans in Virginia to bully, exclude and defeat grassroots conservatives in his district and elsewhere that made his defeat essential to send a message to Washington,” conservative Virginia activist and writer Mark FitzGibbons told TheDC.
First Shots: The Battle for the Convention
The fight begins with former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who launched a challenge to then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.
Bolling, who had the blessing of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell and his allies in the Republican power structure was initially the favorite, and his staff were furious that Cuccinelli would even consider challenging him.
But since the fall, conservatives and tea party activists had run for — and gained — a stronger representation on the Republican Central Committee. They knew that a more conservative candidate had a greater chance of winning in a closed Republican convention than in a statewide primary that both Democrats and Republicans could vote in, so they reversed a previous decision, and decided that the Virginia Republican Convention would decide the candidate.
Largely owing to this, Bolling dropped out, and Cuccinelli won the nomination alongside Lt. Gov. E.W. Jackson, a conservative black minister who would have stood little chance in an open primary. Cantor, to this point, stayed out of the fray. But in November 2013, Cuccinelli, Jackson and their candidate for attorney general, Mark Obenshain, were defeated in a Democratic sweep.
That’s when Cantor and his consultants decided they would launch an offensive to take back the Republican Party of Virginia, and in the months that followed, Cantor and the Young Guns political action committee he founded launched a concerted effort to retake chairmanships and, ultimately, the Virginia Republican nomination process from tea party — and Republican-base affiliated activists.
“When conservatives and libertarians managed to secure a few seats on the State Central Committee of the Republican Party of Virginia and Bill Bolling opted against running against Cuccinelli in the convention last year, there was a decision among some in the establishment that they had to ‘take the Party back,’” Blair told TheDC. (BEDFORD: What the hell is the point of the Virginia GOP?)
“The Cantor-aligned organization [Young Guns] pushed for ‘slating’ at local conventions under the leadership of Ray Allen, Cantor’s chief political adviser,” Blair continued. “The procedural move was viewed correctly as an attempt to push out conservative grassroots activists from voting at local conventions that picked representatives to state central.”
“Slating,” is a complicated parliamentary tactic that is viewed as bad form, and best explained by Republican Party of Virginia Executive Director Shaun Kenney:
Two hundred people show up at a mass meeting as potential delegates for 100 seats at a convention. One side rises and reads off a list of names — a slate — and the majority then elects those individuals as the only ones who can go to the convention. As you can see, if one side in particular chose to slate their convention delegates, that candidate would then receive 100 percent of the votes for that locality, rather than a proportional number of votes based on actual numbers at the mass meeting.
Through slating, Cantor’s allies hoped to regain control of the convention — and through that, the nominating process.
The tactic was first used at a meeting in Virginia Beach, where it succeeded, but before it could be repeated in Henrico County (which includes Cantor’s 7th District), tea party Republicans mobilized and narrowly defeated it. Then, Cantor’s allies’ gains in Virginia Beach were reversed, and one of the most powerful men in Washington suddenly found himself hounded by grassroots, who for months complained loudly online and in person about the majority leader.
“The tactics used, brazenly and in a bullying fashion, thoroughly agitated the grassroots,” blogger D.J. Spiker wrote for Virginia conservative site Bearing Drift. “Efforts had been made for years to primary and move Cantor out of office, efforts that fell flat; Cantor won a primary with more than 80 percent of the vote in 2012.”
“But in the aftermath of 2013, the game changed,” Spiker continued. “Rather than being defensive, Cantor-backed allies went on the offensive, with plans to take back control of the Republican Party of Virginia. Those maneuvers set in motion a series of events that would unite the grassroots while slating supporters fell quietly by the wayside.”
“People who had no interest in the 7th District race were enraged that Cantor’s allies were involved in the process of disenfranchising conservative activists who make phone calls, donate time and money, and above all else, vote,” Blair told TheDC. “The rejection of
Linnwood Cobb in [Cantor's] 7th District, Cantor’s choice for the district chairman, foreshadowed Cantor’s loss last night. Cantor was actually boo’d at the convention.”
“Yeah, he spent a lot more money, but it’s not like these dollars were well spent,” said a communications VP for a national conservative organization. “He may have put more money on the air, but ultimately how did his turnout model fail so poorly? How do you do that when you’re an incumbent — you can’t get people to turn out for you in a primary? He didn’t have any investment in the right places — in boots on the ground.”
And that, the communications head, who wished to remain anonymous so they could speak freely, said, is “because those hardcore activists that would normally do that for him were pissed off that he was meddling in Virginia politics.”
“I think that the idea that this is an anti-amnesty victory, that’s part of it, but [the power play] was the real core of it,” Viguerie told TheDC. “It’s just anti-establishment across the board. They’re heavy handed in slating; they’re trying to take over the party — just, the hubris in their running operation.”
“I’ve been to thousands of conservative events around Virginia,” Viguerie, who has been active in national conservative politics since taking the helm of Young Americans for Freedom in 1961, said, “and I never saw Eric Cantor at any of these events. Never. He clearly was a candidate of the Chamber of Commerce, and just lost touch with conservatives. It’s an anti-establishment feeling that goes beyond conservatives.”
Indeed, national tea party organizations were loathe to involve themselves in the primary — for fear of inciting the potential future speaker of the House over what they viewed as a lost cause. Conservative talkers like Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, however, were quick to jump into the fray, slamming Cantor and, later, national tea party groups that had refused to lend their support to Brat.
And in the absence of outside-group support or money (Cantor’s campaign spent more at steakhouse than Brat’s spent on the entire campaign), what counted was base mobilization.
“That’s concerning, that [Cantor's internal] polling was so off,” the communications head told TheDC “The only way polling can be so far off is your turnout operation really sucked, or your polling was really atrocious, but generally I would say its a turnout, because you’re anticipating a certain subset will turn out for you and then they don’t show up.”
“You have to think about the mindset of the national party vs. the local,” they continued. “They see him as D.C. now. They don’t see him as the local boy, and he’s now telling them what to do on the local level. State party chairmen don’t tend to like that.”
“Immigration was clearly the policy issue that Brat used most effectively against Cantor,” one conservative activist who recently left the Hill told TheDC. “And I think that he had a platform with local activists to make that case because of the brazen power plays that Cantor was making in the Republican Party of Virginia as a member of House leadership. I think those factors, combined with his arrogance, are what eventually brought him down.”
“I think it was cumulative, including the arrogance of trying to sweep the slate of tea party candidates,” Young America’s Foundation President Ron Robinson told TheDC. “It is a surprising win, but I am not surprise at least one ‘leader’ was ousted.”
“Ultimately, this is hubris at its greatest,” said the communications VP. “I don’t know how much you’ve worked with him, but he’s pretty arrogant, and ultimately that led to a flawed strategy where on the one side, he was poking conservatives in the Virginia state party with the convention, and on the other side the only thing he was saying about his competitor is ‘He’s a liberal professor.’ So conservatives were already pissed off at him, and then he got some of the moderates — he ginned them up to support this guy. He outflanked himself on both sides because of his own arrogance.”
“The Republican leadership now is going to begin to move further to the right,” Viguerie predicted. “Cantor’s replacement will certainly not be someone like [Speaker of the House John] Boehner or [Majority Whip] Kevin McCarthy, and then when Boehner steps aside, leadership will continue to move to the right.”
The grassroots won this battle, but the Republican leadership in D.C. is another story. Still, there is one thing the pundits got right Tuesday night: D.C. is taking notice.