The absurdity of leadership fights in an era of populism

Philip Klein and Byron York write interesting takes on the repercussions of Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss and subsequent resignation from House GOP leadership, but it’s not clear that one of the clear lessons has been absorbed. In part, that’s because the House GOP still hasn’t quite analyzed what it means for them, and that’s understandable given the singular nature of the event. York reports that the caucus is holding off on setting priorities for the rest of the session while they mull the meaning of Cantor’s fall:

It’s only natural that a who’s-up-and-who’s-down leadership struggle would consume House Republicans after the stunning primary defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor. There’s a big hole in the party’s top echelon, and it’s got to be filled.

But after a new majority leader is selected, and the leadership slate finished, GOP lawmakers will have to figure out what Cantor’s loss means for the Republican agenda. Right now, they have no idea.

That’s because they don’t know why Cantor lost. Sure, there have been dozens of stories purporting to explain the vote, but for the moment, it’s all just guesswork.

The fact that Cantor lost by 11 points in a race in which his campaign pollster projected a 34-point lead is pretty clear evidence Cantor did not know what was going on in his district. He didn’t know how many people would go to the polls — turnout was far higher than in Cantor’s primary in 2012 — and he didn’t know what motivated them.

York then goes through four possible explanations for Cantor’s loss, but misses the fact that he’s already identified the primary reason. Cantor didn’t know his own district, and his district didn’t know him. On the same day that Cantor lost a safe seat by double digits, Lindsey Graham won 57% of the vote against six opponents in South Carolina despite being one of the biggest national grassroots villains over the last few years (Cantor was a minor irritant in comparison).

What was the difference? Graham did the retail campaigning and engagement necessary to win handily. He paid attention to voters. Salena Zito went to the epicenter of the upset to talk to voters in Cantor’s district, who were tired of being ignored while Cantor focused on his own leadership ambitions:

Cantor, R-Va., underestimated the anti-Washington sentiment among voters in his 7th Congressional District, said Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based Republican strategist.

“What this race tells me is that people do not care about seniority as an argument for re-election, or how high up you are in leadership,” Haynes said. “They care that who they send to Washington is ‘one of us.’ ” …

White believes the disconnect began with his vote for TARP legislation, the 2008 financial bailout that authorized hundreds of billions of dollars in expenditures. But other issues were more personal for people, she explained: “He didn’t hold town halls; he didn’t keep appointments.”

In other words, Cantor became part of the institutions rather than someone who could represent his district’s interests in contrast to them. Cantor missed the populist swing in his district, and the House GOP seems to be missing it in general.

Philip Klein calls the election of Kevin McCarthy as Cantor’s replacement as Majority Leader “pure absurdity“:

Though we’ll never know precisely why Cantor was knocked off byDave Brat, an obscure economics professor, it’s clear that in recent years, Cantor lost the trust of the conservative base and became a symbol of Washington. Whether it was on immigration or fighting to shrink the size and scope of government, Cantor was increasingly at odds with conservatives and far too cozy with business interests.

His defeat presents House Republicans with an opportunity to signal – ahead of the 2014 midterm elections – that they’re listening to conservatives. But by elevating McCarthy, who is next in line as whip, they’d be sending the opposite message – that they’re determined to crush conservatives.

I’ll go one further than Philip on this. The focus on who gets the Majority Leader position now is itself “pure absurdity.” It’s inside baseball, a divvying of the spoils of the very institutionalism that Cantor’s district rejected. Filling the position is a necessity for organizing the caucus, but it’s only going to be for the next few months. After the midterms, there will be another leadership fight of more consequence involving the entire leadership chain, and not just the number two slot.

Cantor would have done the caucus a favor by sticking it out until then. Right now, it looks like Washington Republicans are a lot more concerned about themselves than they are about the voters, which is exactly what got Cantor into so much trouble in VA-07.