While watching U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in last Tuesday’s Republican primary in Virginia, I kept hearing Yogi Berra say, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Back in 2010, Mike Castle (who had been elected many times statewide) never expected to lose in a primary to an unknown. But Castle’s loss, like Cantor’s, was partly due to being wrong-footed on an issue, and partly due to mechanics.
For Castle the main issue that brought on the wrath of the primary voters was his support of cap-and-trade. The mechanics involved two things: (1) A perception in southern Delaware that Castle had little interest in their concerns and (2) A contraction in the number of registered Republicans in northern Delaware.
The parallels with Cantor’s loss are obvious with the perception issue (in Cantor’s case being immigration), but the contraction issue is worth a look too.
In 2008 many northern Delaware Republicans (Castle’s base) switched parties to vote for Jack Markell in the Democrat primary. The most famous switcher was federal judge Jane Richards Roth, widow of Senator Bill Roth, the father of the Roth IRA. Judge Roth’s Republican pedigree (as a Richards) dates back to the Civil War, when the Richards family supported Abraham Lincoln when Delaware was a slave state.
I don’t know if Judge Roth switched back, but as Castle learned to his dismay on primary day in 2010, many of his former voters had not. From what I observed, it seems Castle’s campaign did no outreach to the switchers to get them to re-register as Republicans in time to vote for in the primary. Castle lost by 3,540 votes and some have estimated that as many as 3,000 Republicans joined Judge Roth in switching parties in 2008. The math speaks for itself.
With Cantor, the mechanics involved redistricting and a failure to communicate.
The growth in Virginia’s population in the 2010 census was not quite large enough to gain it a 12th seat (it has been at 11 since 1990), but it may pick up one after the 2020 census. Northern Virginia’s population growth (reflected in the 2010 census) meant that the southern Congressional districts needed to be pushed north (e.g., the 5th district now runs all the way from the North Carolina state line to the D.C. outer suburbs).
For Cantor, redistricting took away some of his moderate voters in the southwest Richmond area that had been voting for him since he was in the state legislature, and replaced them with new-to-him voters in rural and exurban areas, such as New Kent County (north of Richmond). These voters are more conservative than what had been Cantor’s core urban and inner-suburban voters. The Washington Post’s map of the election shows Cantor holding his own or doing well in his old Richmond territory, but getting crushed in New Kent County.
Plus, Cantor was crushed in exurb Hanover County (which was in his district during the past decade), which fits into the National Journal’s hints that Cantor failed to do the stuff members are supposed to do on their long weekends, such as town hall meetings. Hence his failure to communicate. In Cantor’s case this failure is particularly telling, as his district is within driving distance of D.C.
To recap my mechanics theme, for Mike Castle it was a failure to see that he needed to get his base voters re-registered to vote in the Republican primary and to shore up connections in the southern part of the state. In 2014, Eric Cantor failed to see he had a significant group of new voters who were different than his old base. Cantor compounded his mistakes by substituting a last-minute campaign ad barrage to make up for his years of no-shows at local events involving his longtime exurb and rural voters.
Finally, I’ve some advice for the primary winner, Dave Brat. A win in November is not a foregone conclusion for you. In 2010, some assumed Christine O’Donnell’s primary win would scoot her into the U.S. Senate. However, she received only 40 percent of the vote, losing to a Democrat who just happened to be a former law clerk of Judge Roth.
Second, you must take a very hard look at your past, and if there’s anything seemingly odd about your resume, discuss it frankly and straightforwardly right now and get it over with. And if you feel the need to run a television ad about it, please don’t use a black backdrop, as Ms. O’Donnell did in her now-infamous ad.
Lastly, I think it would be a good idea for you to cease your references to your time at Princeton, as you attended Princeton Theological Seminary, not Princeton University. The seminary was established as a separate institution in 1812 and has been so ever since.
Further, as your former seminary is part of the Presbyterian Church USA, which seems poised to deem Israel an apartheid nation later this month, I think you’d be wise to drop the whole Princeton-reference thing. Just a suggestion, and good luck to you.