The Party Line
3:35 pm
Thu June 12, 2014

Pundits Show Their Non-Wisdom In Discussing Tea Party

Michael Bitzer

When I wrote my last post for The Party Line, we were expecting that all the attention on Tuesday’s primary election would be in South Carolina. Instead, the political earthquake centered in Richmond, Va., with the unseating of the second-most powerful Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives.

And while most commentators are readying national implications into the race, it would seem like the old adage of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill still rings true: All politics is local.

Some commentators have been making a long list of what this portends for the national Republican Party.  In fact, the claim of immigration reform is dead and that Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes are “so, so alive” may have a great ring to casual observers, but primary elections are notoriously hard to extrapolate real and concrete data of national importance from small slivers of geography.

In regard to the death knell for any hope of immigration reform this year, fellow political scientist Matthew Dickinson argues that while Cantor expressed a willingness to discuss amnesty for children whose parent emigrated illegally, and one that David Brat hammered him on, it doesn’t mean that the entire package of reform is in the legislative coffin.

In fact, some polls, including one released on the day of Cantor’s defeat, indicate that Americans across the political spectrum favor reforming the nation’s immigration laws, with 70 percent of Democrats, 61 percnet of independents, and 51 percent of Republicans favoring “a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally.” 

The question is not about reform, necessarily, but how reform is defined. The devil in most legislative proposals is always in the details.

Another explanation for Cantor’s downfall is the fact that with Virginia’s open primary system, Democrats played mischief and helped elect the candidate most likely to lose in the general election.

But voting data shows there’s no basis for that explanation.

Generally, we have come to expect that party-line voting is pretty consistent, in that those who vote for one party’s presidential candidate will likely vote down the ballot for that party’s candidates (thus we’re seeing the end of the split-ticket voting pattern).

For example, in Hanover County, Va., Obama received just over 30 percent in 2012 but Cantor’s opponent received nearly 68 percent of the vote. This means there were disenchanted Republican voters who turned out against the majority leader.

Other analysis also shows that Cantor’s loss wasn’t due to Democrats, so it appears to be an inter-party warfare going on. 

And that’s what Cantor’s defeat may signal more broadly to the House GOP Conference as well — always be looking over your right shoulder. 

Party leaders who are the “establishment” can get trapped in the D.C. beltway mentality, and Cantor, even though he was an ambitious politician with eyes on the speakership, neglected the cardinal rule of re-election bids: Never lose touch with the folks back home. 

For his $5 million in spending compared to his opponent’s $200,000, the issue came down to “who showed up” and how angry were they at the incumbent. 

In comparison, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham coasted to his re-nomination even though he had been at the bulleye’s of tea party anger. He recognized the insurgency, built a war chest, and acknowledged the discontented voters’ policy rage to deflate their anger. 

It probably also helps tea party insurgents that when there is only one candidate vying against the incumbent Republican, rather than multiple candidates (such as in South Carolina against Graham and North Carolina against Thom Tillis).

But as I wrote in the last post, the tea party’s demise has been greatly exaggerated; in fact, the Republican Party may see its conversion to a fully steeped party after this lump that the establishment took.