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Lessons of the Cantor: Arrogant Insiders, Angry Outsiders

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Pundits are always very quick to come up with the key reason that something surprising (something that none of them predicted) happened politically. Because these explanations are usually off the top of their heads prognostications, backed up by no actual statistics or maybe one random fact someone pulled out of an exit poll, they quite frequently have little or no truth to them.

The Eric Cantor upset has been a field day for the random, off-the-top-of-their-head pundit theories. We heard that the shocking defeat was caused by rural voters turning on Cantor, but that was quickly debunked. We heard that the problem was redistricting, but the district really is very similar to the last district he had, and he's already had one cycle in the new district for the few new voters there are to get used to him. We heard that the surprise might be due to anti-Semitism, but the rural numbers linked to above and the fact that Cantor has been elected for many years in essentially the same district, plus that little point that there is absolutely no evidence for this idea, tend to undercut that thesis. Then there is the idea that Democrats strategically going to the polls to kick Cantor out, but again those little things called statistics undercut this theory.

Finally, of course, there is the theory that pundits and right wingers immediately jumped on: It was all about the immigration issue, since the tea party guy running against Cantor is even more virulently anti-immigrant in his rhetoric than Cantor had been. Again, not a shred of actual proof on this theory, but that didn't keep the nativists and pundits from jumping all over that one. Fortunately, there are smart people like David Jarman who know how to actually look at voting statistics to figure out whether there is anything to all to many of these theories. His summary answer: None of them hold water.

The fact is that Eric Cantor was an arrogant man. He was far more interested in running for speaker than in looking after folks back home. The taking care of your constituents thing is politics 101, and he flunked that test dramatically. But there is something closely related to the taking care of your constituents thing that is going on here, and all you have strong to do is to look at the rhetoric of his opponent to figure it out. Check out this important article from Lee Fang,and look at Brat's (Cantor's opponent) language on the campaign trail. Quotes from Brat from Fang's article:

"All of the investment banks, up in New York and D.C., they should have gone to jail."

"Eric Cantor and the Republican leadership do not know what a free market is at all, and the clearest evidence of that is the financial crisis ... When I say free markets, I mean no favoritism to K Street lobbyists."

"Eric is running on Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable principles," Brat told a town hall audience, later clarifying that he meant the US Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobbying trade group in the country. He also called out the American Chemistry Council for funding ads in his race with Cantor, telling a radio host that his opponent had asked his "crony capitalist friends to run more ads." Brat repeats his mantra: "I'm not against business. I'm against big business in bed with big government."

Now obviously, Dave Brat is no progressive populist. He is a virulently anti-immigrant, far-right conservative on a great many issues, and that helped him with the anti-establishment tea party crowd that voted in force in Virginia's Republican primary. But Brat ran his campaign much more on these populist economic outsider themes than on anything else, and given that Cantor came across to his district as the ultimate insider, as caring more about K Street and special interest fundraising than about the folks back home, Brat's message was the perfect formula to pull off the shocking upset.

Voters all over this country -- left, right, and middle -- are sick and tired of the way Washington works. They don't like wealthy, powerful, special interest lobbyists swinging sweetheart insider deals. With all the big money paying for sleazy attack ads by innocuously named groups who don't disclose their donors, Democrats would be well-served by taking K St and the Koch brothers on. The best way to do this is to be specific -- tell voters, for example, who the Koch brothers are and why they are spending so much money running these sleazy ads. This terrific ad by Begich's campaign in Alaska helped Begich enormously in his tough race for re-election. Democrats can win answering the why question: Why are these wealthy special interests spending so much money on ads attacking them? If voters understand what is going on and who is paying for these ads, they can win the message wars in spite of all the money being spent against them.

Eric Cantor's upset shows that big money doesn't always win, and that K St-bashing populism wins elections. Let's hope that Democrats across the country take that to heart and fight back against the big money flooding their races.