It didn’t matter that David Brat was an unknown economics professor. It wasn’t enough that Eric Cantor had spent nearly $5.4 million on his campaign. And it certainly made no difference that Cantor branded himself as a preacher of the Republican Creed.
On the evening of July 10, 2014, Eric Cantor made congressional history, becoming the first House majority leader to lose in a primary. His challenger, David Brat, pulled off a stunning upset, amassing 56 percent of the votes compared to Cantor’s 44 percent. Having only raised a meager $206,000, Brat pulled off a victory that would forever leave its mark in congressional archives.
Upon first glance, the odds were clearly stacked against Brat. In fact, the Americans for Campaign Reform conducted a study analyzing the correlation between “campaign spending and election outcomes for incumbent” candidates for the House of Representatives. It found that less than 1% of challengers spending $700,000 or less won election. Considering the importance of money in campaigns, it would seem that Brat pulled off quite the shocking feat. Almost any political expert will say that money is the most critical aspect of winning a campaign.
Although Brat may seem like an anomaly, Gary Jacobsen, a professor at UC San Diego argues otherwise. He posits that incumbents, like Eric Cantor, suffer from diminishing marginal returns in terms of campaign expenditures. Name recognition is one of the biggest incumbency advantages, since those in office “saturate the public” with their political attitudes and beliefs. As a result, any additional campaign finances raised for reelection have relatively small payoffs. For example, during Cantor’s tenure as House Majority Leader, his more liberal attitude toward policies such as immigration was already well publicized to both parties and to the constituency. On the other hand, the opposite is true for the challenger. David Brat, an unknown public figure who was also a member of the faltering Tea Party, struggled initially to get his name out. Failing to garner support from large corporations, he resorted to local activists for campaign finances. Logically speaking, had Brat raised more money, he would have been able to overcome the imcumbency advantages Cantor possessed.
However, it’s clear from the results of this Virginia primary that money played an insignificant role. The diminishing marginal returns paid few dividends for Cantor’s campaign. There must have been an underlying factor that determined the election. Instead, voters were swayed by a far different reason: ideological differences between the two candidates.
Before diving into the political discrepancies between Brat and Cantor, it is important to look at the past trends of the GOP. As the graph below shows, the Republican Party has become increasingly more polarized over recent years.
Unfortunately, this dichotomization has caused its members to weed out representatives unaligned with party beliefs. As Vanessa Cedeno, a Graduate Student Instructor at UC Berkeley, sums up, “the [GOP] has begun to hold on its to base with no more room for compromising”. The hardliners within the party are driving it “to take stances that are more on the fringes than on the middleground”.
This unwillingness to compromise, primarily on the issue of immigration, jeopardized Cantor’s relationship with the party. For months prior to the primary, Eric Cantor faced surmounting pressure from the GOP to reject any immigration proposals the Democrats put forth. However, from looking at Cantor’s track record, it’s clear that he, contrary to Republican requests, spearheaded immigration reform in the House. Instead of appealing to his own political party, Cantor pushed for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, arguing for a “pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants”. Although Cantor’s actions may have been viewed as a glimpse of compromise in a dually stratified political system and an attempt to appear more moderate in the public eye, they ended up alienating him from the GOP.
As a result, David Brat leaped at the chance to push his opponent off the “political tightrope” strung between Cantor and the GOP. “Eric Cantor has been the No. 1 cheerleader in Congress for amnesty,” Brat told a half-dozen reporters. “There is no Republican in this country who is more liberal on immigration than Eric Cantor.”
Left to defend his actions, Cantor seemed to be stuck in a double bind. As Majority House Leader, supporting amnesty was a tenable means of fostering communication and compromise between the two parties, but it also proved to be disastrous for his relations with the GOP. However, rejecting amnesty would have cast a negative light on himself and his party in the public eye, establishing a Republican unwillingness to compromise. Because Cantor failed to find a way to appeal to all sides, the thin line he was walking on with the Republican Party snapped.
In the end, Brat pulled off an upset that truly shocked the nation. Unfazed by the lack of campaign expenditures, his tactic of crumbling Cantor’s already faltering relationship with the GOP was the ultimate catalyst behind his victory. This effective strategy uncovered one : the Virginia Primary was Brat’s election to lose.