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All Politics Is Local

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The late Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill loved to tell a story about encountering one of his constituents on the street, an elderly lady who had long been one of his most staunch supporters. He asked if she had voted for him in the previous election. She said she had not. Taken aback, he inquired why.

"Because you never asked me," she replied.

The great hullabaloo in Washington about the primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is producing entirely too much analysis, most of it ill-conceived. It is the nature of Washington pundits to infer cosmic influences in every political event, and it was a given that this upset would evoke lots of such babble.

The suggestion that this one primary election portends a great resurgence of the Tea Party is typical Washington hype. Just a week ago, the same pundits were writing obituaries for the Tea Party and now it is arisen from the dead. Neither extreme is viable. The Tea Party has not gone away and it is surely a factor in many elections, but it is not the next big thing in politics.

Likewise, the notion that the aptly named Dave Brat, who defeated Cantor, will be a harbinger of the second coming of the Tea Party is simply bizarre. Cantor had real power as House Majority Leader. Brat, assuming he wins the general election, will be the low man on the Congressional totem pole. I doubt he will earn much attention. Also, he has to be the only professional economist in the world with no opinion on the minimum wage.
Some commentators contend immigration was his Cantor's Waterloo, but I reject that out of hand.

I don't believe there were many people in Virginia's Seventh District who could tell you what Cantor's position on immigration actually is. Moreover, Senator Lindsey Graham's positive approach to immigration reform did not make him lose in South Carolina. Immigration is a serious issue but only one of many.

And finally, the Cantor defeat was a marginal election. Brat defeated Cantor 36,110 to 28,898 in a district with 758,000 residents. In the 2012 election, 223,000 of the 381,000 voters in the district voted for Cantor. Clearly, a tiny minority of voters upset Cantor's applecart.

Cantor lost because he took the voters for granted. He was a highly successful political leader on the rise. He spent quality time with major donors and raised a mighty war chest. He had money to burn and he burned a good bit of it, but he should have spent more time walking the streets of his district asking people for their votes, up close and personal.

"All politics is local," said O'Neill. Cantor's debacle serves once again to remind us of the wisdom of that observation.

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Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. June 2014