However, that ignores the second-biggest story of Tuesday night's election: Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the Republican Party’s biggest cheerleaders for immigration reform, won his primary in similarly conservative South Carolina without a runoff. Had Graham had only one opponent instead of half a dozen, it might have looked closer, but he easily cleared the 50-percent mark. If immigration were purely determinative, Graham would have lost even worse than Cantor.
In addition, Public Policy Polling did a snap one-day poll of actual voters in Virginia’s 7th District on Tuesday, on behalf of Americans United for Change. PPP asked them how they felt about an immigration bill that "would secure our borders, block employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, and make sure that undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. with no criminal record register for legal status." A total of 40 percent of the district's voters strongly supported it, and another 32 percent somewhat supported it; only 23 percent somewhat or strongly opposed it. Now those numbers might go down somewhat if you subtracted the district's minority of Democratic voters, but it’s still extremely strong support for immigration reform in this R+10 district.
And yet… the first question in the poll is Eric Cantor's approval rating, which was a lousy 30/63. If you do the math, that's 43 percent of the district's voters who approve of immigration reform and yet don't approve of Eric Cantor. We're going to need a different explanation for his loss.
There's much more debunking over the fold.
Another theory that got a lot of traction was that a huge crossover vote from Democrats meddling in the primary swung the election. A number of commenters (including me), rushed to speculate that the combination of much higher turnout than expected, and the fact that Virginia has open primaries that allow crossover votes, could have meant an Operation Chaos-style surge. And there was a concerted effort to get Democrats to cross over, at the behest of Ben Jones. (If you're familiar with Jones, it's probably because he was Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard. However, he went on to become the Democratic Representative in Georgia's 4th district for four years, from 1998 to 1992, when he met a redistricting-related demise. He then tried to run against Newt Gingrich in 1994, then moved to Virginia's 7th district, where he ran against and lost to Cantor in 2002.) The "Cooter" factor was one of the main defenses, in fact, offered by Cantor’s pollster John McLaughlin for being off by 45 points on the result.
But the broad consensus today, with people having had the time to look precinct-by-precinct at the results, is that, no, Democrats aren't to blame/thank. They may have added to Brat's margin, but it doesn't look like they were single-handedly responsible. Cantor got significantly fewer votes than he did in the 2012 primary, without even taking into consideration where Brat's votes came from.
And turnout didn't shoot up in the more Democratic-friendly parts of the district. Compared with his easy primary win in 2012, Cantor had his biggest drop-offs in support in the district’s darkest-red counties. For example, a scatterplot by turnout expert Michael McDonald shows how turnout was the highest in the reddest precincts, where there simply aren't many Democrats to begin with.
One other explanation floating around on Wednesday has been that Cantor got taken down by redistricting. It's an appealing narrative: live by the redistricting sword, die by the redistricting sword. The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham mentions this theory as part of a larger post on how Democratic incumbents used to be more at risk in primary elections, but now it's mostly Republicans exposed to that risk:
But Cantor's loss underscores the dangers of overenthusiastic gerrymandering. Virginia Republicans tweaked the boundaries of Cantor's district in 2010 to make it more conservative. This seemed like a great idea in 2012, when Cantor won his primary by a huge margin. But the unintended consequence was that the district became so conservative that it opened up Cantor to a challenge from the right, even though ideology-wise he's about as conservative as Michele Bachmann.However, if you compare the map (as seen at the top of the article, courtesy of ace cartographer Matthew Isbell) of the current version of VA-07 against the pre-redistricting, 2000's version, the changes are pretty small. ("Tweaked" is, indeed, the right word.) You’ll notice that the main change was the loss of three mostly rural, but thinly populated, counties in the Shenandoah area, as well as some nips and tucks in the suburbs that are harder to see at this level of zoom—but the district is still focused mostly on Richmond's suburbs of Henrico and Chesterfield counties, its exurbs in Hanover County, and the most affluent corner of the city of Richmond itself. If anything, the district simply became smaller and denser, to account for rapid growth in those suburbs. (If you want, instead, to see a dot-map of the results rather than one that uses gradations, the Washington Post has one of those, too.)
According to our calculations, the old VA-07 went 46 Obama-53 McCain in the 2008 election; the new VA-07 went 42 Obama/57 McCain in that same election. Moreover, there's an 88 percent overlap in constituents between the old district and the new one. So Cantor wasn't suddenly faced with a lot of new constituents who were unfamiliar with him, and who, as blank slates, were won over by someone else's more-aggressive messaging. Instead, the vast majority of the voters were already well-acquainted with him, and wanted something else. (And that's without even considering that he already won easily in 2012 with the exact same set of constituents, post-redistricting.)
Instead, the more convincing explanations are the ones that, trite as it may seem, are based on some variation of Cantor having gone Washington/gotten too big for his britches/lost sight of the little people back home. It's especially vivid when, again, compared with the story of Lindsey Graham, who, when faced with the same sort of skeptical constituents, restored his relationships with local GOP officials, stumped aggressively around the state, and ran a whole slew of positive TV spots focusing on what he’s done.
Cantor, by contrast, threw a couple negative ads at the problem—which may have actually backfired, between their ham-handed attacks and raising Brat's previously-invisible profile—and mostly just stayed inside the Beltway, continuing to lay groundwork toward taking the Speakership. (Case in point, he spent Tuesday morning meeting with lobbyists and donors in Washington, rather than campaigning.)
"Mudcat" Saunders, a well-known Democratic consultant but also a local, offered this explanation to Time:
"Was immigration an issue? Yes. Was it the deciding factor to the tune of 11%? Not no, hell no. It's a fairy tale," Virginia Democratic strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders said. "People talk. And they talk about Eric Cantor. 'Where is he?' His constituent services suck. He was never in the district. And when he was in the district and he went out, he had a [security] entourage with him. He was out gallivanting all over the country being a big deal and this is a lesson."Constituent services, by itself, isn't a make or break issue … but it helps contribute to a larger narrative. So, too, do Cantor's staffing picks, and his interactions with other elements of the GOP power structure. Erick Erickson offers a helpful peek behind the curtain here. (Traditionally we wouldn't assign much credibility to Erickson, but he's uniquely positioned as an observer, with one foot in the inside game and one foot in the fever swamps.)
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." An establishment consultant who backed Cantor actually agreed with this assessment. That attitude moved with Cantor staffers to K Street, the NRSC, and elsewhere generating ill will toward them and Cantor. Many of them were perceived to still be assisting Cantor in other capacities. After Cantor’s loss tonight, I got a high volume of emails from excited conservatives, but also more than a handful of emails from those with establishment Republican leanings all expressing variations on "good riddance."The New Republic's Brian Beutler works a similar angle, focusing on Cantor's repeated pattern of harnessing movement conservative anger, using it to initially drive his own agenda, and then pulling back at the last minute and leaving the hard-liners dangling. (The standoff over the debt limit last fall is Exhibit A, but the smaller dust-up over the "doc fix" several months ago is another recent example.)
He played legislative strategy the same way he played intra-conference intrigue—devising too-clever-by-half schemes to seize momentary advantage, often at the expense of bigger picture goals. They frequently blew back at him…. After Obama's re-election, Cantor had to reverse course and orchestrate ransomless debt limit increases, to the great dismay of Republican hardliners. He then pandered to those same hardliners in ways that frequently undermined John Boehner's best-laid plans. These priorities were incongruous, and suggestive of an effort to situate himself as the Speaker's heir apparent, rather than of a commitment to conservative causes.The manipulation was transparent to other Republicans … and it was gradually becoming transparent to his district’s voters as well. Here's Erickson again:
Cantor and his staff both lost the trust of conservatives and constituents. They broke promises, made bad deals, and left many feeling very, very betrayed. Much of it was because of Cantor’s hubris and the arrogance of his top staffers. He could not be touched and he could not be defeated. He knew it and they knew it. He kept his attention off his district, constituents, and conservatives while he and his staff plotted to get the Speaker's chair."Hubris" may be the key word here. The climb through the ranks through treachery and intimidation, and then the sudden realization when you're at the top that you've burned through all your allies, is almost allegorical. It's a pattern we've seen many times before, whether it's from the Greek playwrights or Shakespeare, or in the collapse of some of history's nastiest regimes: When the leader who appeared to rule effortlessly suddenly falls with a lot of knives in his back, few people are saddened, while many people are surprised at just how thin and flimsy his support actually was, and how he was just staying in power propped up by a combination of fear and entropy.