This week, as Mainers focused on the results of our 2nd Congressional District primary and the few legislative primaries scattered across the state, a political hurricane was bearing down on Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. In one of the biggest upsets in the history of American politics, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – one of the most powerful men in Washington – lost in a primary to a man he outspent 25-1, economics professor David Brat.
In a year in which the growing conventional wisdom among the commentariat was that the power and influence of the tea party movement were sputtering out, the tea party claimed its most shocking victory yet.
There are many questions to consider in light of this result, but one of the most pressing is whether pursuing these kinds of ousters is wise politics. After all, though Brat campaigned against him on immigration, Cantor was hardly a champion for reform — or, as its opponents call it, amnesty. He did advocate a measured, piecemeal approach to immigration — which was promptly ignored by the United States Senate. He not only didn’t support amnesty, he wasn’t the biggest advocate for changes in the House Republican Caucus, let alone all of Congress. Other Republicans — like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — pursued the issue much more vigorously than Cantor, yet emerged unscathed from primaries or weren’t even challenged.
This isn’t to say that primaries are always a bad thing, or that incumbents should never be challenged. When done right, primaries can help make a stronger candidate for the general election, and it’s perfectly fine to remind politicians that they’re answerable to the voters. However, this ire and energy should be focused in a productive direction, toward people who truly deserve it.
If you want to defeat Republicans who support immigration reform, go after those who have really pushed the issue, not the ones who are looking for reasonable solutions that the GOP can support. Don’t criticize someone for being obstructionist, then primary the person for trying to get things done. If you want to keep amnesty from happening, replace the liberal politicians who support it with conservative ones who oppose it. Work in primaries to get the right person nominated, then work to get that person elected.
Please, though, let’s stop targeting the wrong incumbents, or focusing too much on primarying incumbents simply for the sake of primarying them. At times it almost seems as though the minute anyone is elected or enters leadership, certain people start resenting them for it and distrusting them immediately. It’s as if, no matter what you say or how you vote, it’s never enough.
It wasn’t too long ago that many conservatives were pining for Cantor to directly challenge Speaker John Boehner. It appeared that Cantor frequently held back Boehner from even more wheeling and dealing, on this and other issues, helping to steer him in a more conservative direction, rather than the opposite.
Now, it appears likely that Cantor will be replaced by California Republican Kevin McCarthy, who holds the No. 3 position in leadership. McCarthy is no hard liner when it comes to immigration: Indeed, if anything, he may be to the left of Cantor. It remains to be seen what kind of majority leader he might be, but in this case, reform opponents may have cut off their nose to spite their face.
Primaries should be used the right way: To find the most conservative candidate who can win the general election. If you’re primarying someone because of a certain issue, but ignore others who are even worse on that issue, you’re doing it wrong.
It is perfectly fine to primary somebody, but please, make sure that politician truly deserves it and it’s being done for the right reasons, not just so someone can notch a win on his belt.