Thursday, June 12, 2014

All Politics Is Local

The late Tip O'Neill is often quoted as saying that. I don't know if he did or not — but he did write a book that had that as part of its title so I assume he must have said it at least once.

Whether it originated with him or not, it is about the truest statement about politics, particularly the care and feeding of House districts, that you will ever hear.

And I believe it holds the key to the historic primary in Virginia in which Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, was beaten by a Tea Party–backed economics professor.

Clearly, when a seven–term congressman who holds the position of House majority leader and has his eyes on the House speakership is denied renomination, there will be many attempts to explain what happened. A House majority leader is not rejected by his constituents every election, and I believe this is the first time that a House majority leader has lost a party's primary.

It is historic.

In the last couple of days, the most prominently mentioned causes of Cantor's loss that I have heard are (1) the Tea Party is back and has seized the Republican Party, and (2) this was anti–immigration backlash.

Let's examine both of these suggestions — and, as we do, let's look at the results of another primary election conducted on the same day in South Carolina, where Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham easily defeated six challengers.

First, the assertion about the Tea Party.

I really get tired of hearing the Tea Party referred to as if it is an actual political party. It is not. It is a grassroots movement, not really different from the "Occupy Wall Street" movement on the left.

In the aftermath of Cantor's loss, I have heard the Tea Party mentioned as if it had thrown its enormous political heft into the campaign and crushed Cantor. To be sure, there are some national Tea Party organizations that do promote certain candidates and make an effort on their behalf — but, from what I have heard, nothing like that happened in Virginia. Some Tea Party sympathizers favored Cantor's challenger, but there was no coordinated effort that I have seen.

Perhaps Tea Party groups wanted to jump into the race — but no one thought Cantor could be defeated.

The thing that seems to shock people the most is the huge advantage Cantor enjoyed in campaign funds. He spent millions; his opponent, it is said, spent about what Cantor's campaign staff spent in steakhouses.

My guess is that particular revelation sent shockwaves through Republican incumbents — but it should have been a cautionary tale for Democrats, too. Neither side is immune to the illusion that a monetary advantage will always win an election. This time, though, it wasn't about who spent the most.

Nor, I think, was it about immigration. Cantor is conservative, but he supported a pathway to citizenship, and some have suggested his loss was due to backlash on immigration.

It is true that some of the voters in Virginia's Seventh District voted against Cantor on the basis of immigration, but from what I have been reading and hearing from reporters on the ground, that wasn't the most significant issue for most voters.

That hasn't kept immigration reform from taking the blame.

The Breitbart News Network says it was a "referendum against amnesty."

The Washington Post and Miami Herald say Cantor's loss means the end of immigration reform in the foreseeable future. Halimah Abdullah of CNN writes that immigration reform already was a longshot before Cantor lost, and the campaign for it should continue.

The Chicago Sun–Times, too, says the campaign for immigration reform is separate from the campaign for Virginia's Seventh District House seat.

I agree, mostly because what O'Neill said is still true. All politics is local, especially in House districts, which are divided up based on population. Except for those rare cases in which a state's population is so low that it only qualifies for a single at–large representative in the House — and there are currently seven of those — House seats are about as local as it gets in Washington.

The House of Representatives is known as the "People's House" because its membership is intended to reflect the people's will and conduct the people's business — and what I am hearing from Seventh District residents is that Cantor essentially forgot the people he represented. He wanted to be speaker. He wanted to be a player on the world stage.

That is something that Graham did not do. Graham and Cantor are similar in their politics. In the past, they've had the support of self–described Tea Party voters, and there was talk that their support for immigration reform alienated Tea Party voters.

But on Tuesday, as I say, Graham easily won renomination. Every political analyst I have seen regards his seat as safe in November's general election.

I don't dismiss the influence of the Tea Party any more than I dismiss the influence of any other politically active group. What I am saying is that any incumbent — in either party — who is not perceived as a public servant is going to have trouble, especially in this political climate.

Cantor paid the price for that perception, and now Republicans will choose a new majority leader next week.

That is the lesson incumbents should be taking from this.

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