The whirl of explanations for the stunning upset of Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor by Tea Partyer Dave Brat has dozens of explanations: Cantor took a liberal position of child immigrants; Cantor lost touch with the District; Cantor was part of the Republocrat deal-makers in Washington; Having no campaign money is an advantage. Here's a new one: The candidate with the most striking and unusual name will win.
This might be the best of a bunch of bad explanations for primary upsets. If so, it makes the upcoming contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in New York a hot race. The insurgent there is left-winger Zephyr Teachout, a euphonious appellation if there ever was one. The powerful, moneyed and skilled incumbent is Andrew Cuomo.
Truth be told, I don't really believe names have much to do with it. If so, my all-time favorite, Preserved Fish, would have held political office beyond his brief tenure as a presidential elector. But he didn't.
Ideas matter more in American elections than we credit, especially in primaries. The Brat/Cantor race was about competing visions of how to move the country hard to the right. The Republican Party is in the throes of a power struggle, with the ballot box repeatedly settling things out, as it should.
The Left has not, in recent years, suffered/benefited from a similar contest of ideas. That's partially because there was much less intellectual ferment among progressives than on the right, and partially because left interest groups have worked things out quietly, in many cases.
But the Teachout-Cuomo race may be a harbinger of things to come. It is squarely and purely a contest of ideas. In addition to her memorable name, Zephyr Teachout's challenge to Cuomo is based on her disagreement with his economic agenda. Cuomo, she says, has adopted Tea Party economic rhetoric and policies. She calls him "Governor 1%" and points to massive income tax cuts for those making over $300,000 a year, elimination of the tax on banks, cuts in the tax on wealthy estates, cuts in school aid, massive corporate subsidies and, maybe worst of all, stopping Mayor de Blasio from imposing a millionaire's tax in NYC. She's pointing to Cuomo campaign literature touting "Tax Relief To Manufacturers", "Cutting Taxes To Create Jobs", "Make The State Friendlier To Business" as evidence that he's pulled the Democratic Party into the Republican supply-side camp.
Cuomo has yet to fully respond. He repeats that he's a "progressive" and points to his strong record on social and identity issues like gay marriage, gun control and abortion rights. He also points to his successful effort to get the ballot line of the union-backed Working Families Party, which Teachout contested, winning over 40 percent of the vote.
Can a Democratic primary campaign succeed on an economic message alone? That used to be obvious. The Democratic Party, from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to LBJ was the political opposition to the plutocracy and big business. Not so much anymore, especially as Democrats emphasized important identity issues needed by their minority, gender and sexual orientation constituencies. Plus, Cuomo has raised over $30 million and has strong support from labor unions.
Teachout has to file thousands of signatures that can withstand a full-blown Cuomo legal challenge before she's officially on the ballot. If she gets to that point, there is really no way to predict the outcome. Before Brat-Cantor the conventional calculus was unchallenged. Money, name-recognition and voter inertia drove the inevitable outcome in favor of incumbents. Since Brat-Cantor there's a sense that voter disaffection can overcome all that. Do New York Democrats care about tax cuts for the wealthy and a progressive economic agenda?
There's some evidence of discontent here. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio won last years' mayoral primary by demanding an end to income inequality and vociferously opposing the economic policies of Mike Bloomberg, the supply-sider with a human face. Teachout could also inherit the votes of anti-fracking, anti-gambling and pro-teacher activists who have separate axes to grind with Cuomo.
But he's not to be underestimated. He's tougher than nails, politically skilled and, again, well fortified with money. Come to think of it, so was Eric Cantor. If Cuomo has learned that lesson, he will have to compete on the intellectual and issue fronts in ways Cantor couldn't or wouldn't. This is a genuine preview for the presidential politics of 2016 even if Hillary is inevitable. The country seems to want to re-think the basic purposes of government, including how we run our economy. Brats and Teachouts are the vehicle for that re-thinking. Preserved Fish would be proud.