The staggering Republican primary defeat tonight of Eric Cantor, the second highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives and the third most-powerful Republican in Washington, is a reminder of just how volatile American politics has become. And how responsive.
Eric Cantor wasn’t supposed to lose. His own pollster had him up by, get this, 34 points the other week. He’d raised nearly $5 million, and in the past two weeks spent $1 million against his rival’s $79,000. Not enough.
There’s a lot of triumphalist talk tonight about sending a message to Washington and the establishment vs. the outsiders and all that. Most of it is nonsense. Eric Cantor was “Establishment” by definition because he was in the House Republican leadership. But he was a constant source of agita to House Speaker John Boehner because he insisted on representing the party’s more rightward elements during negotiations with President Obama. He is the Republican Obama detests the most because he was so stalwart against the president.
So is this a case of the Republican Right eating one of its own to prove a point? Perhaps. Or it could just be he was hit by a perfect storm of anti-Washington sentiment and his own advocacy for an immigration bill that made him a whipping boy for ratings-hungry radio chatters. He lost touch with the voters in his own district and was done in.
The classic recent chattering-class talking point is that democracy no longer functions because it’s been stolen by rich people. But consider this. From 1954 through 1994, the House of Representatives was under the control of the Democratic Party uninterruptedly. Then Republicans held it, by increasingly thin margins, for 12 years until the Democrats took it back in 2006. Republicans seized control yet again in a 2010 landslide. The Senate has see-sawed back and forth—controlled by Republicans for the first few months of 2001, then by Democrats until 2002, then by Republicans until 2006, then again by Democrats. Both in 2010 and 2012 Republicans had a significant shot of taking back control but were stymied by several bad in-state candidacies.
Interesting things can happen in politics. Very interesting things. Right now the only sure thing, supposedly, is that Hillary Clinton will sail through the Democratic primaries unopposed. The would-be candidate we all saw last night embarrassing herself in an interview with Diane Sawyer should not be considered an inevitability. Eric Cantor’s reelection was an inevitability too.