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7 explanations for Eric Cantor’s shocking primary defeat

Nicholas Kamm, AFP
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Why did House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lose his primary to a little-known challenger on Tuesday? Typically, Washington has a conventional wisdom ready for a question as big and obvious as that one. But since virtually no one predicted Cantor's loss, pundits and politicos of all stripes are scrambling for a way to explain why this thing they never thought could happen was actually obvious all along. Here are some of the explanations they've come up with:

1) He was tied to immigration reform

A 2013 speech where Cantor discussed immigration.

Brat ran as an anti-immigration hardliner, and argued that Cantor would give amnesty to unauthorized immigrants. "The central policy issue in this race has become Cantor's absolute determination to pass an amnesty bill," he told Breitbart News days ago. "Cantor is the No. 1 cheerleader in Congress for amnesty." In response, Cantor moved to the right on the issue and argued that he was protecting the US from the "Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty."

After Cantor lost, Mark Murray of NBC News wrote that Cantor was "a casualty of immigration reform." However, since Senator Lindsey Graham, who not only supported but passed an immigration bill, managed to overwhelmingly win his primary the same night, it's hard to say that immigration reform alone can end a top Republican's career.

2) He was too close to banks and business, while his opponent was more populist


Cantor rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty

At the New Republic, John Judis writes that Brat also campaigned on an anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street platform. "All the investment banks in the New York and DC — those guys should have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, they went on Eric's rolodex, and they are sending him big checks," Brat said.

Judis argues that many of Brat's immigration-themed attacks on Cantor were framed in terms of big business. "Eric is running on the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable principles," Brat said. "If you add 40 million workers to our labor supply, what will happen to the wage rate for the average American?"

3) He was feuding with local conservative activists

Last month, Cantor was booed at his district's GOP convention.

All politics is local — especially House politics. So Jon Ward of the Huffington Post finds the roots of Cantor's loss in a simmering feud between local conservative activists and the Virginia GOP's establishment.

The activists wanted the party's candidates to be chosen not in primaries, but in conventions, which they believed would result in more conservative nominees. They took over the party's central committee in 2012, and eventually, Cantor and other establishment figures decided to fight back. They did so in part by trying to drop local activists from convention delegate lists, as blogger Steve Albertson explains here. "One Virginia GOP operative said that the fight over the central committee was 'all of' the reason Cantor lost," Ward writes.

4) He fell out with national activists and talk radio hosts


Laura Ingraham. Photo: Noel Vasquez, Getty

Almost immediately after Cantor was chosen as majority leader, DC insiders speculated about the possibility that he could overthrow Boehner as Speaker with the support of conservatives. But the relationship between Cantor and ideological activists has deteriorated since then. 'He and his staff have repeatedly antagonized conservatives. 'One conservative recently told me that Cantor's staff were the "biggest bunch of a**holes on the Hill,"' Erick Erickson wrote at Redstate.

Over time, Cantor began to back Boehner's policies more fully — which tied him to a leader who had frequently disappointed activists. "Conservatives came to view Cantor as at best unreliable, at worst an outright enemy," writes Dave Weigel. At TNR, Brian Beutler attributes this rising antagonism to Cantor's own political strategy of playing to the right, writing, "He created expectations that almost nobody serving at a high level of congressional leadership could meet." Yet rather than organized outside groups, it was mainly talk radio hosts like Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin who backed Brat's challenge — showing again the outsized influence that medium has on the right.

5) He lost touch with his district


Virginia's 7th district.

Members of the House are elected to represent a particular district, and they're expected to put that district first. So there's a danger for incumbents who are too closely identified with Washington and party leadership. "Some GOP strategists said Cantor lost touch with his district as he focused more on his national leadership role," writes the Washington Post's Paul Kane. Erickson concurs, writing"Cantor lost his race because he was running for Speaker of the House of Representatives while his constituents wanted a congressman."

6) He's Jewish

The New York Times wrote that Cantor "was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative." Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report told the paper, "Part of this plays into his religion. You can't ignore the elephant in the room." Matt Brooks, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told Politico that Cantor's loss was "one of those incredible, evil twists of fate that just changed the potential course of history."

7) He just failed to turn out his supporters


Win McNamee, Getty Images News

Cantor's district has about 758,000 residents — yet only about 65,000 turned out to vote in the primary, and 36,000 of them voted for Brat. "If the results point to one clear culprit, it's Cantor's campaign — and, in particular, his get-out-the-vote operation," Ezra Klein writes. "Cantor almost certainly had more than 36,000 supporters in his district. But he didn't turn more than 36,000 of his supporters out to the polls. And that's why he lost."

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