Gail Collins: Putting a cap on Eric Cantor

The New York TimesJune 12, 2014 

Pardon me. I'm having trouble getting my thoughts together today. I'm so upset about Eric Cantor.

Yes! The House majority leader was tossed out of office in an apocalyptic, stunning, incredible earthquake of an election in Virginia that has left the nation absolutely floored in shock.

"This is a 10 on the political Richter scale," announced Rep. Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The Democrats were sort of gleeful about the whole situation, to tell the truth.

Cantor was beaten — trounced, really — by David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, who had no money and so little name recognition it's possible that Cantor himself could not have picked him out in a crowd.

What could have happened? Was it tea party rage that sent nearly 14% of the eligible voters in Virginia's 7th Congressional District stampeding to the polls, delivering a message that shook the nation to its core? Or was it something personal?

Cantor's not the most charismatic guy in the universe. Do you think his constituents sensed that he was spending election morning in a D.C. Starbucks, at what The Washington Post described as a "monthly meeting with large donors and lobbyists?"

Americans always get a little kick out of David and Goliath stories, even if — as in this case — David turns out to be a pet of right-wing commentators, who ran on a "no amnesty!" platform. We don't actually know a whole lot more about Brat at this point. His hobby is pickleball, which is apparently a mixture of badminton, tennis and ping-pong. It sounds very interesting, although not as much as Paul Ryan's hobby of walking along a stream and trying to grab catfish by their throats.

The website for Brat's candidacy noted that he served on Virginia's Joint Advisory Board of Economists under two governors and claimed that everyone in the state comes to him for budgetary insight "knowing that he tested his rural values against the intellectual elite while at Princeton." Actually, he went to Princeton Theological Seminary, which is an entirely different place. But at the moment, people are more fascinated by the fact that his entire election budget was $200,000, which is only slightly more than what Cantor's campaign spent on steak dinners.

There are definitely some downsides to this development. Brat, who leads Randolph-Macon's BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism program, once co-authored a paper on "The Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand," and there is possibly nothing the nation needs less than a new Ayn Rand fan in Congress.

Also, we really do not need the Republicans in the House to become even more paranoid about a primary from the right. They've been nervous for a long time, but this is a whole new scenario. It's the difference between worrying about burglars and hearing that a gopher in your neighbor's backyard suddenly grew to be 6 feet long, broke down the door and ate all the furniture.

Cantor's district in Virginia is heavily Republican, so the Democratic nominee — Jack Trammell, an associate sociology professor at Randolph-Macon College — is a long shot. But you never can tell. Brat could wind up being a terrible candidate. In one of his first interviews after the victory, he was asked for his position on raising the minimum wage and replied: "I don't have a well-crafted response on that one."

But the election comes later. Why do you think Cantor blew the primary? Many observers think he lost touch with his constituents. This comes up a lot in congressional races but generally not with lawmakers who live within a two-hour drive of the Capitol.

Armed with a 26-1 cash advantage, Cantor apparently couldn't resist introducing voters to his hitherto unknown opponent by running attack ads, howling about "Liberal College Professor David Brat" and featuring pictures of Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, who was in office for part of the time that Brat was on the economic advisory board.

In Virginia, Democrats and independents are allowed to vote in the Republican primary. Maybe some of them saw the ads and thought: "Great! A liberal professor! And Tim Kaine was a great governor. At least he didn't get indicted like the last one."

Maybe not. But as the sun sinks on Eric Cantor, we have to reflect that one of the pluses to this story is that the House majority leader may have lost his seat because he made a mistake in presuming that Americans hate college professors more than professional politicians.

 

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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