Why Eric Cantor Lost and Lindsey Graham Won

Wednesday, June 11, 2014
No one saw House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's loss coming, least of all the Virginia Republican and his team. In fact, ahead of Tuesday night, most of the talk among the political chattering class was about whether South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham would be able to clear the 50 percent mark - enough to avoid a runoff -- in his Republican Senate primary.

As it turned out, Graham easily topped 50 percent and it was Cantor who fell to Tea Party newcomer Dave Brat in a shocking upset. Everyone - pundits, political consultants and journalists alike -- seems to have an opinion about why Cantor went down in flames while Graham cruised to victory.

We decided to curate some of the prevailing theories about how two candidates - both Southern Republicans, both big names on Capitol Hill, both running in a primary on the same night - could meet two totally different fates. Take a look:

WHY GRAHAM WON: THE THEORIES
  • He started doing favors for his colleagues from SC
    • "'When the members of the congressional delegation needed something for their district, their first call was to Lindsey Graham and it was to his cell phone.'" (Former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, National Journal)
  • He moved to the right during his primary
    • "In his final campaign commercial before the primary, Graham touted his conservative credentials, which he said included support for 'building the Keystone pipeline, opposing Obamacare, looking for answers on Benghazi, standing up for our military.'" (CNN)
  • He was better liked in his district
    • "Graham's victory was also aided by assiduous attention to constituent service" (National Journal)
    • "In contrast to several other endangered Republican senators who spend most of their time in Washington---neighboring Sen. Thad Cochran, who's at risk of losing a runoff this month, is a prime example---Graham regularly returns home on weekends to rallies, party events, and American Legion posts, where he tells well-wishers to greet him by his first name." (National Journal)
  • He had several challengers, not just one
    • "Graham's six little-known GOP challengers ended up dividing the anti-Graham vote, not allowing for a single or choice opponent to emerge." (Post Courier)
    • "Through a combination of intimidation and enticement---as when he helped a conservative congressman, Mick Mulvaney, get a seat on the House Financial Services Committee---he kept the most prominent potential opponents out of the race" (The Atlantic)
    • "[Graham's] fundraising --- and a major charm offensive to get on the good side of conservatives in the House delegation --- dissuaded potentially serious rivals from getting in." (Politico)
  • He never assumed he'd win handily, and started prepping his campaign well in advance
    • "Mr. Graham prepared for his seemingly inevitable primary challenge years in advance, recognizing that his frequent deviations from party orthodoxy would make him a prime target on the right." (New York Times)
    • "Graham left nothing to chance ... He raised $13 million and seeded aformidable campaign operation, with more than 5,000 precinct captains and six field offices around the state." (The Atlantic)
  • National Tea Party groups, sensing his opponents wouldn't be able to muster much support, left Graham's race alone
    • "National tea party groups ...which eyed Graham at the outset of the election cycle, mostly steered clear of South Carolina, where none of Graham's opponents caught fire." (Washington Post)
  • He's unapologetic about his views and positioned a win as a slap in the face for "radical" Tea Party republicans
    • "To be sure, Graham ... has said his popularity in one of the country's most hard-right states is a direct rebuke to the GOP's tea party wing and shows that voters, as he told a crowd recently, are "about the Republican Party moving forward, not backward." (Christian Science Monitor)
    • "At every one of Graham's campaign stops, I find Republicans who've been chagrined at the sudden rise of the right and now want their revenge.They bemoan the Tea Party as "extremists" and "wackos," and wonder what has happened to their party ... This is a common sentiment among Graham's supporters, and he hopes that by channeling their sentiment, he can prove there's more of an appetite for moderation in his party than has previously been thought." (The Atlantic)
WHY CANTOR LOST: THE THEORIES
  • He ignored the warning signs until late in the game
    • While other GOP incumbents facing tea-party challengers ... worked for months to crush their challengers, Mr. Cantor didn't push back hard against his opponent until too late in the campaign. (Wall Street Journal)
    • "Mr. Cantor received what amounted to a warning shot from local Republicans at a district convention last month in Henrico County, his political home base, when conservatives ousted one of his loyalists as Republican chairman while he looked on. At that point,it was too late to stave off defeat." (New York Times)
  • He was running more for house speaker and less for re-election
    • "Cantor's problem was less ideology and more a sense that he stood more for his own ambition than for any definable policies." (TIME Magazine)
    • "'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.'" (Virginia Democratic strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, TIME Magazine)
    • "Several said they believed that Cantor had mismanaged his campaign, with a strategy in which he was too aloof." (Washington Post)
  • As a party leader, it was his job to "split the difference" between the Tea Party and the establishment.
    • "His position of authority also saddles him withany grievances that voters might have against the GOP leadership." (Five Thirty Eight)
    • "The House leadership must represent both factions, which are not necessarily at war with each other, but which face fundamentally contrary political imperatives ... The result of trying to split this difference is an unpalatable mush, delicious to no one ...For the more ideological Cantor, who tried to represent the Tea Party radicals but also coveted Boehner's job, it yielded a robotic incoherence: no but perhaps yes on immigration reform, no or yes on raising the debt ceiling, often in the same sentence. Vagueness and elision made Cantor inane." (Slate)
    • "Since the rise of the Tea Party, Republican incumbents in the House have faced a basic political question: Do they represent safe districts, in which case the threat to their survival comes from right-wing populists challenging them in primaries? Or do they represent swing districts, where the graver danger comes from a moderate Democrat running against them in a general election? ... [Cantor] wasunable to make this choice in either direction." (Slate)
  • Brat portrayed him as soft on immigration
    • "During the primary campaign, Brat repeatedly accused Cantor of supporting some immigration reform principles, including "amnesty" for undocumented workers. In response, Cantor had sent voters a mailer boasting of his role in trying to kill a House immigration bill that included that provision." (Chicago Tribune)
    • "Brat is indicative of the challenge House Republicans are facing across the country. If a Republican member shows any kind of openness to immigration reform measures, no matter how small, they have to worry more about a potential primary challenger than losing in a general election to a Democrat." (PBS)
  • He released ads attacking Brat - but the strategy may have backfired by putting the little known professor squarely in the spotlight
    • "It gave [Brat] oxygen and it gave him sympathy. It was just a tactical mistake"('a republican strategist,' Washington Post)
    • "When Eric Cantor spends millions and millions of dollars telling [voters] he's a liberal, he's a liar. ... You saw the people actually wanted to do something ... They wanted to help Dave out because you see this great guy being destroyed." (Brat's campaign manager, Zachary Werrell, LA Times)
Related Topics:
news abc news national
(Copyright ©2014 ABC News Internet Ventures.)

Load Comments