After three decades in politics I am not easily surprised, but I am floored by the result of soon-to-be former Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary defeat. David Brat's 12 percentage point win was shocking to supporters, opponents and even Mr. Cantor's pollsters who had him winning by 40 points!
I have nothing against Eric Cantor. While I often disagreed with him he was a hard-working congressman. Campaigns are difficult. Before I lost my seat in 1994 my pollster had me up 20 points in the polls only weeks before November, having just finished work on legislation that would save thousands of jobs in my district. I thought I was sitting pretty, only to find out that after 18 years I was finished. I'm sure Mr. Cantor is feeling what I felt and other politicians feel after electoral defeat, as former Congressman Mo Udall so eloquently put it, "the people have spoken -- the bastards."
The implications of Cantor's loss are reverberating across the political spectrum like ripples on a pond: What does this mean for immigration reform? Who will be the next Majority Leader? How will this affect ongoing appropriations bill debate? Is the tea party back? Did it ever really go away? These are all important questions that I defer to the talking heads.
If anyone has read my op-eds over the years they know that I am deeply concerned about money in our political system. To make a long story short, I have become convinced that the extraordinary volume of money in the system is dramatically hurting our government's ability to function. It is incredibly refreshing to see someone like David Brat, whose entire campaign cost some $200,000, take on and beat someone like Mr. Cantor whose campaign, according to news reports, spent $168,000 on steakhouses alone. Mr. Cantor, as Majority Leader and a prominent figure in the GOP, had access to big donors and was a prolific fundraiser. He had enormous amount of money in his campaign coffers and still has $2 million left after last night's defeat. Mr. Cantor outspent Mr. Brat 25 to 1, and yet for all that money he still fell to grassroots, local politics.
The big money Mr. Cantor raised and spent clearly didn't help him, but amazingly to me it may have hurt him. "All the investment banks in the New York and D.C. -- those guys should have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, they went on Eric's rolodex, and they are sending him big checks," Brat said on the campaign stump. That's pretty populist rhetoric for a Republican (or, in this era, for a Democrat as well).
It is a brave new world of politics in the post-McCutcheon and Citizens United era. The deregulation of money has, in my judgment, eroded public faith in government and hamstrung our nation's ability to address crucial problems before us.
To see a candidate taking on an incumbent with an astronomical cash advantage, running on a platform in part opposed to money's influence in the political system and win is an amazing thing in this day and age. Maybe this is the beginning of a trend in both parties. I am not going to hold my breath, but perhaps this political earthquake is a step toward restoring some sanity to our campaign system.