Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 8, 2016

How and Why Eric Cantor Lost

Cantor lost his primary on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Eric Cantor lost his primary on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary in convincing fashion, but there appear to be two separate questions: How did he lose? And why was it a surprise?

One thing that everyone should be able to agree on is that Cantor’s loss was historic. According to CQ Roll Call research, he is the first majority leader to lose in a primary since the creation of the position in 1899.

So how did Cantor lose?

The initial postmortems on the race point to a variety of potential reasons: Cantor was too moderate on immigration, ran ineffective campaign ads, had poor internal polling, suffered from a local fight over the state central committee, was too focused on becoming the next speaker, was part of the unpopular Republican leadership, had ineffective constituent service, didn’t spend enough time in the district and wasn’t a good stylistic match for the primary electorate.

In reality, these all could have (and seem likely to have) contributed to his loss in some way. And in the days ahead, there are likely to be more deep dives analyzing the nuts and bolts of the race.

But the other fascinating question was, given the growth of the political analysis industry, why didn’t anyone see the upset coming?

On one level, Randolph-Macon College economics professor Dave Brat’s victory over the second-highest ranking Republican in the House fits the insider versus outsider, establishment versus anti-establishment narrative very neatly. But that’s about where the similarities to other successful challengers starts and ends.

Cantor was not caught off-guard in the race. Unlike some of his colleagues who lost in 2012 primaries, including Ohio’s Jean Schmidt, Oklahoma’s John Sullivan, and Florida’s Cliff Stearns, Cantor ran a campaign. He began airing attack ads against Brat in April.

Even if his television ads missed their mark, incumbents who have taken their races seriously at an early stage usually are victorious, particularly when they outspend their challengers by a huge margin, which is what happened in Virginia. According to pre-primary reports detailing activity through May 21, Cantor spent more than $4.8 million and had $1.5 million in the bank. Brat spent $122,000 and had $84,000 on hand.

Anti-establishment groups remained on the sidelines. Usually a successful challenger needs a boost from outside from groups such as Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund (which is open to playing in House races), and Madison Project. Those groups weren’t involved, so it seemed unlikely Brat would get over the top without them.

At the same time, the typical establishment groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or Republican Mainstreet Partnership were not involved for Cantor. That has been a sign of a lack of vulnerability in the past, but clearly was not the case in this race. Not asking for help could have been Cantor’s biggest and final mistake.

That also means the tea party still hasn’t shown an ability to defeat the establishment at full power this cycle. That could happen on June 24 in Mississippi.

Without some of the usual indicators of primary intensity and competitiveness, we were left to turn to polling. And there wasn’t much to turn to.

From a handicapping perspective, the surprise ultimately rested on the survey research. There was a shortage of polling data, and those that were available turned out to be very wrong, and quite misleading.

The Cantor campaign released a now-dated poll by McLaughlin & Associates, conducted May 27-28, which showed the congressman with a 62 percent to 28 percent advantage. The only other public poll was an automated survey which showed Cantor ahead by 13 points, but the firm has been in business for about 15 minutes, so there was little reason to put a lot of stock in that single poll. In any case, both surveys showed Cantor over 50 percent on the ballot and comfortably ahead. The congressman lost by at least 10 points on Tuesday.

At the end of the race, polling data should be the most important piece in handicapping and projecting a race. In the case of Cantor’s primary, the limited survey data misinformed the analysis and led to a surprise outcome.

  • Layla

    Too moderate on Immigration? Are you serious?! Our borders are literally overflowing at the moment and you idiots in Washington want more.

    Time to vote everybody out. American families deserve the right to be represented by politicians who will place their needs about the needs of the US Chamber of Commerce.

    Shame on the lot of you. You haven’t any idea how the people in this country are struggling to survive and YOU caused this.

    • Finetime71

      Too moderate on immigration?

      Cantor allowed Obama to spend $50 billion on the Mexico border fences, $50 billion on border security in the past five years, have record deportations, and the net immigration flow is now at zero.

      Brat wants to spend another $100 billion on more fences, allow serious water restrictions in Texas, do nothing to safe guard all the entries via the Gulf, forget about the millions here on out-dated visas, allow predator employers continue to exploit workers, and via witch hunts haphazardly alienate the Hispanic and Latino populations.

      • Layla

        Americans want the borders shut down. Contrary to “polls”, Americans do NOT want more illegal immigration. American Hispanics feel the same, so stop insulting our intelligence, please. Most who voted against Cantor were longtime supporters who are now watching this administration out of control and Congress doing nothing to stop him. We have no other choice but to vote Congress out. Don’t believe me? Stay tuned for November. Our borders are being overrun with no attempt to stop it. The American people have had enough of a Congress that won’t listen.

        • Finetime71

          35,000 people in a gerrymandered district does not constitute the “American People.” Sorry, but I did not insult your intellegence, you did that all by yourself. Every thing written were things approved by the GOP, and Cantor was propising spending $100 billion on the fence, not Obama.

          • Layla

            See you at the polls.

        • LumberJock

          Yew doth protest too much. We know you need the illegals to staff family sweatshops. Are they in Texas, Oklahoma, Aridzona, Utah or Arkansas?

      • papal

        So Obama spent 100 billion dollars for border fences and border security only to have thousands of children go through it all. Yeah right. The record deportations is a lie and you would know that if you actually checked into that statement. Instead you just repeat the lie.

    • LumberJock

      Another needing illegals to staff the family sweatshop!

  • F Michael Addams

    The people of Cantor’s district DO NOT like him…He is a corrupt ARROGANT putz…Bye eric…so long…keep walkin’..

    • Layla

      Have been listening to callers from his district all morning about why they voted against him this time. God bless each and every one of them.

  • motorcity555

    yeah brudder cantor just don’t be connecting with his peeps. the article on him on 60 Minutes (which took me two hours to watch) that highlighted that he listens to lil wayne the rapper don’t be resonating with dem down in va…plus I think his faith is disrespected by the protestant constituents in his district too…….Detroit, Michigan

    • Dave Sweeney

      don’t be…… peeps,,,,,,,,,,

  • Jeremy

    Apparently you were tired of English class and slept right through it.

    • Layla

      I wouldn’t attack the voters if I were you, unless you want to see more of this.

    • James

      Really would you like to make the corrections. I would be interested to see them.

      • LumberJock

        We can start with: not using the possessive case in modifying participles; getting setting and sitting backwards in usage. And then there’s the whole anti-Obama thing. You lied like a rug through the use of false accusations; that technique was outlawed during your kindergarten year. It’s embassies not Embosses. Not least among your communicative vices was the lack of facts and the use of substituting opinion for fact. Lawzee mercy chile, you doan stepinit, an then licktit off’n yo’ shoe.

        • James

          Well I don’t think you know what participle is? Why don’t you Google it. Would you care to quote any case in which I used such? Do you know the difference between participle and a verbal? No, I think you are just an Obama supporter and to ashamed to admit it. You may even be gay and ashamed of that too, I don’t know, and I don’t care. I do admit to a typo or two as it is almost impossible to proof read your own writing. The proof is that people understand what I write and sometimes you do have to write in the way people speak. I believe Samuel Clements did quite well with it.

          Because you are such an expert, I will not correct you
          comment below as I am sure if you work real hard at it you will find a few mistakes in many of the posts you have made on other comments.

          I will save you the trouble of trying to find out what a participle is. It is a word or phrase which is derived from a verb and is used as a modifier. So actually it can be used in possessive case; However I do not see it here.

      • F Michael Addams

        Perhaps he’s ” tire ” of illiterate fools barking at the clouds…?

  • Layla

    There is no Tea Party, did you know that? It’s a movement, not a party. And it wouldn’t exist if Congress were keeping their Oaths of Office. Congress created the Tea Party, and since the movement is made of American people, NEVER discount the will of the people to replace you. That movement is not dying, it is growing and YOU are the cause.

    • LumberJock

      The tea-party movement became the tee-potty club.

      Y’all are anachronistic before your perigee.

      • Layla

        We’ll compare numbers and seats in November, Jock.

        • LumberJock

          That we shall. I’m confident that the predominantly well-educated voters in the blue states up nawth will turn out plenty of Democratic votes for Democrats and retain a majority in the Senate and may even score a slim majority in the House.
          Jack Trammell will send b.rat back to the campus … hat in hand (one) and the other out for a government grant.

  • Layla

    What do you mean Main Street was not involved? Cantor has been attending their secret meetings in my state. You really think the American people are stupid, don’t you?

    You need to listen to Cantor’s voters and ask them why they decided not to support him this time. It WILL effect the reelection chances of each and every Member of Congress. Stop wasting millions on polling and LISTEN TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. None of you should be caught off guard, as long as you listen to your constituents, NOT the US Chamber, LA RAZA and other special interests. We have the power to stop you at the ballot box, and we will.

  • dav

    As my old Aussie friend would probably observe, ISSA tough place to toodle Eric !

  • Pamela Volentine

    is it true that it was an open primary? did democrat voters help elect brat/oust cantor?

    • LumberJock

      No. More republi-can’t lies & distortion.

      • Layla

        I call BALONEY ON YOU! They do this in every state that has open primaries, ALWAYS. You haven’t had honest elections in decades. Democrats ALWAYS cross party lines, knock out the strongest candidate. Would you like details?

        • LumberJock

          I’m living with the result of that illegitimate strategy now. In 2012 many Dems here in Kentucky openly supported randpaul against a moderate Republican. They did so because they were smarter than those of us who lived or were reared out in the ‘boonies’. Well randpaul gave the Louisville Democrat a pasting. And everyone sees what a laughing stock he is.

          I discovered to my embarassment this evening, that it WAS an open primary and Dems may have crossed. If they did it was an illegitimate or unethical act. But since it’s a tactic, I’ve discovered, designed by Mississippi democrats to elect dixie-canz and republi-can’ts who supported ray-gun in the 80’s, I can also lay it at the door of S.Carolina’s Lee Atwater, as a republi-can’t ‘dirty trick’.

          • Guest

            ahh. i thought so. we don’t have open primaries where i live. we can cross party lines in a general election though.

          • LumberJock

            Open primaries must be a republi-can’t or dixie-canz idea at the heart of it is unethical behavior.

  • don76550

    Cantor also recently voted against our gun rights. He is in a district with a lot of gun owners. Brat supports our gun rights. Gun owners vote.

  • LumberJock

    Cantor is a Hippo-critter, not a rhino.

    They voted him out ’cause he’s a Jew. This is sad to me. As long as there was a republi-can’t Jew, we had a camel in their tent.

    Having no more Jews in the reactionary camp is a mixed blessing.

    • Layla

      Another unwelcome response from the Democrats, the party of “tolerance”. What a laughing stock you have become to the American people. And it’s RINO, not RHINO.

      • LumberJock

        I didn’t use the term. I was using a quote from one of b.rat’s legion of knuckle-draggers.

  • GardenGrl

    I think Brat probably won because what he said about opposing the tech industry work visas resonates like crazy. The charge of Cantor supporting Wall Street over Main Street is evident everywhere you look, and quite frankly with the exception of this article the coverage of this happening in Rollcall has been disgusting.

    I was immediately suspicious of the polling but to tell you the truth that was helped along by what looks like a lack of ethic on the part of the candidate who should have forged solid working relationships with firms long before now.

    Not at all convinced the Brat will be any better really, and highly doubtful that there will be any culture change coming to DC anytime soon. But I can dream, can’t I?!

    • Layla

      Look for a lot more openings and until these candidates prove otherwise, we’ll stick with them.

  • Dave Sweeney

    huff post imputs…….sigh…….

  • Progressive Republican

    Some reasons you missed Nate (stay with me here):

    Back in 2008 during the inevitable Reagan-shrub financial collapse, BB&T Bank was one of the many big banks that crashed. To stay afloat, that bank took a $3.1 billion bailout from da shrub’s administration.

    Running the bank at that time was the Ayn Rand-loving CEO John Allison. During his time there he regularly used the BB&T Charitable Foundation, “to provide grants to schools that agree to create courses on capitalism that feature the study of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’”

    As if it were a viable economic philosophy and not a work of fiction. Pff.

    He also gave $500,000 to Randolph-Macon College to hire Dave Brat, so that he too could teach the Ayn Rand libertarian philosophy as an economics professor.

    After receiving the bailout, Allison resigned as CEO and was picked up by Charles Koch to become the new president of the Cato Institute and to keep spreading the manure work of Rand.

    Dave Brat is far more than just a college professor who beat Eric Cantor in a fluke of a primary. He is nothing less than a complete shill for Ayn Rand-loving libertarians and the Koch Brothers.

    Besides saying that Brat’s win was just a fluke and that he’s just a college professor, various pundits have also been saying that Cantor lost to Brat because of his stances on immigration, and because he ran a poor campaign.



    After Brat's victory, the GOPTV/FOX talking heads were praising the power of talk radio, and rightly gave credit to FRWNJ radio pundits, especially Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, for Brat’s win.

    That’s appropriate because for weeks leading up to last night’s primary, Ingraham and Levin absolutely hounded Eric Cantor at every chance possible on their respective radio programs while preaching to the people of Virginia that Dave Brat was their guy, and he was the man that should be in Washington, not Eric Cantor.

    Ya wonder just what’s in it for them eh?

    “A POLITICO review of filings with the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission, as well as interviews and reviews of radio shows, found that conservative groups spent nearly $22 million to broker and pay for involved advertising relationships known as sponsorships with a handful of influential talkers including [Glenn] Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh between the first talk radio deals in 2008 and the end of 2012.”

    Anybody wanna guess just who’s at the top of that list?

    “The Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity paid at least $757,000 primarily to sponsor his [Levin’s] radio show—a sponsorship that covered part of the 2012 cycle.”

    Now mind you, I’m not saying that the Kochs have leveraged any sort of corruption on the part of Levin or Ingraham—supporting somebody with money who already supports politicians you support is just good political investing, and doing it under the radar is particularly useful when you’re being called out on the floor of the senate.

    Dave Brat did not beat Eric Cantor because Cantor’s campaign was poor or because of his immigration stance, and his victory over Cantor wasn’t just a fluke.

    • Layla

      Are you aware that Cantor was attending Main Street meetings in my state with George Soros?

      I think most Americans know what is going on here and that both sides are MIRED IN IT. But I will say this….go ahead and try and pass any
      immigration reform without first closing our borders and see what
      happens to your and each and ever Member of Congress.

      Those VA voters didn’t know about any of this. All they know is that their
      country is going down the tubes led by a dictator who is being supported by both sides of the aisle. Just about the only way either side will remain in office will be if you impeach Barack Obama. Got it?

      Americans are still losing homes, jobs, their retirements and they see a
      Congress, BOTH SIDES, doing nothing to protect the people in this
      country from what is happening. We see the bailouts, the scandals, the
      corruption, but we see you doing NOTHING ABOUT IT.

      You will be lucky indeed if the people of this nation don’t decide to march on Washington and remove each and every one of you from office.

      Immigration reform? Our terms: IMPEACH the President, shut down the borders COMPLETELY and then we’ll talk. Otherwise, NO DEAL.

      • Progressive Republican

        I’ve seen the allegation. I’ve not seen anything about it from a credible source.

        And then there’s the oft-repeated drivel about “Obama the dictator”


        You can tell by the way he forcibly got the $1.6 trillion he originally asked for to combat da shrub’s attempted Depression.

        Oh wait. He had to settle for, what was it: $787 billion or so? Around 40% of which was in fiscally ridiculously pointless tax cuts that did little for the average American but was of immense help to the wealthy and corporations.

        Hmm… Maybe the way he was able to unilaterally implement the single-payer system that he brought to the table instead of the dreck now referred to as “Obamacare that the traitors you voted for hocked up.


        Oh wiat. They made it quite clear that there was no way the universal care idea was going to happen. So Obama suggested they compete on the open market, but the Rethuglicons nixed that idea too since they admitted that a for-profit system was inherently at a disadvantage.

        Or maybe you’re referring to his ability to unilaterally overcome every Rethuglicon filibuster that have clogged the political plumbing for the last several years? Which also cover your bogus claim of “being supported by both sides of the aisle” b.s.


        Yes, Americans are still losing homes, jobs, their retirements and they see a Congress, BOTH SIDES, doing nothing to protect the people in this country from what is happening.

        The problem with this part of your summation is that the corporate media does a poor job of letting the public know about Democratic efforts to boost the economy, provide tax incentives to bring jobs back into the country, restore tax rates to proven effective levels, etc.

        Not that most Dems aren’t corporatists as well; it’s just that they know that the current Rethuglicon-led pogrom of wealth redistribution into the hands of so very few creates a system that is inherently unstable.

        The Founders knew this.

        The Roosevelts knew this.

        The Clintons and Obama know this.

        Even the Rethuglicons know this.

        But it’s these extremely wealthy that appeal to their own sense of avarice, since they look to their wealthy masters to reward their service.

        The bailouts? Somewhat effective, but Rethuglicons stopped the bailouts before more of them could reach the portion of the populace where it might actually do the most good.

        The scandals? Yeah, they’ve been there, bit the majority have been manufactured by the Rethuglicons and their lackeys; kinda like how every time da shrub’s ratings began to wane there was another in a long series of “terror alerts”.

        The corruption? Certainly measurable, nowhere near what we saw under any GOP President we’ve endured since Eisenhower.

        And your march? That worked out well, didn’t it? You claim “WE still believe in the Constitution and fully intend to protect it.”

        Everybody says that.

        Be original.

        And your terms?

        That kind of inflexible antagonism is the kind of b.s. the Founders railed against during the attempts to fix the Articles of Confederation that Tea-Baggers confuse with the Constitution:attempts that ultimately failed and resulted in the Constitutional Convention which was the result of the kind of compromise your last paragraph negates.

        • Layla

          The “immigration reform” Obama wants: Legalization, not Amnesty. Give them years to apply, pay taxes, but go to work immediately at lower wages and with Obamacare waivers. Within about 6 months, people will say, “not fair to work with no benefits!” A full citizenship will be granted, including the vote.

          Whom do you think will get the jobs?

        • Layla

          You’re going home, Proggie, if you haven’t left for K Street already. This Congress WILL be sent home because elections are always about the economy. American families are STILL losing homes, jobs and cannot survive any longer. I TALK to the voters in my district. They will not send you back to Washington. Cantor isn’t the only Member who has become completely beholden to the US Chamber. You all have or their would have been some relief to American families instead of a welcome mat to illegal aliens throughout Latin America.

          It ENDS in November. See you at the polls!

          • Progressive Republican

            “You’re going home, Proggie, if you haven’t left for K Street already.”


            “This Congress WILL be sent home because elections are always about the economy.”

            Um, no they’re not. Were it so, they’d’ve quit voting Rethuglicon decades ago.

            “American families are STILL losing homes, jobs and cannot survive any longer.”

            As I pointed out above. Pay attention.

            “They will not send you back to Washington.”


            “Cantor isn’t the only Member who has become completely beholden to the US Chamber.”

            Wow. How long did it take you to realize this? It’s clearly been the case for the majority of America’s history. Btw.

            “You all have or their (sic) would have been some relief to American families instead of a welcome mat to illegal aliens throughout Latin America.”


            It’s less a “welcome mat” than it is just one whole helluva lot better than where they came from.

            And if you really think there’s going to be a significant change this November, you’re even more delusional than you currently appear. Things are gonna have to get a whole lot worse for there to be real change unless the Tea-Baggers commit treason a full-scale armed insurrection.

    • Layla

      Oh, and one last comment….when you are at war with your own base, expect to be beaten and replaced. Not a very bright campaign strategy, Karl Rove.

  • argonne18

    Cantor’s historic repudiation was because he was as warmongering chickenhawk. He supported every Gestapo surveillance law. He was a complete toadie to wall street. While American schools, roads, cities, and veterans, went unfunded or underfunded, Cantor could not shovel enough money to Israel. Likewise, he just could not turn down the masses of money from Chaim Saban, Sheldon Adelson, and AIPAC. If he were half as concerned with representing Americans and his district instead of “watching Netanyahu’s back”, he might still have a job. Good riddance. Let’s hope this is a trend.

  • Haymitch Abernathy

    Since the world is devoid of all-knowing people, liberty provides the leeway for each of us to adapt to the unpredictable circumstances and conditions we face.

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