Conservatives nationwide gasped while Conservatives in Virginia’s 7th district rejoiced following the shocking primary loss of House majority leader, Eric Cantor on June 10th. Cantor, slated by many as the next Speaker of the House, fell to the opposing tea party Representative, Dave Brat, by an 11-point spread. “This is an earthquake, no one thought he’d lose”, stated former congressmanVin Weber (R-Minn). Cantor’s loss has thrown Republicans into a fury, posing daunting questions regarding the status of immigration reform and the future Speaker of the House following the fall 2014 election cycle. Although failed campaign strategies and minimal community engagement plagued Cantor in his loss, differences in Conservative ideology on a local and national scale ultimately solidified Cantor’s fate.
Following the 2010 census, the state of Virginia re-drew district lines, adding 9% of the 1st district and 3% of the 3rd district to the pre-existing 7th district of Virginia. Cantor’s new constituency became far more conservative than his prior represented district. Not only was Cantor’s district filled with Conservatives, Virginia’s 7th district is filled with far-right thinking individuals, specifically regarding the topic of immigration.
Prior to the Republican primary, Vox Populi Polling conducted a 583-person survey of “active GOP Primary voters” in Virginia’s 7th district, finding that a riveting 64% of voters believed the US should stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country, and an additional 33% believed the US should deport all illegal immigrants. These numbers drastically differ from the results of a national immigration poll conducted by CNN, and a Public Religion Research Institute questionnaire, finding 41% of Americans in favor of stopping the flow of illegal immigrants and 17% in favor of deporting all illegal aliens respectively.
House majority leader Cantor worked vehemently during his last term to pass pieces of immigration reform that appeal to a national audience, bolstering a far more liberal preference on immigration than his counterpart, Brat. Meanwhile, Brat, claiming immigration as, “the most symbolic issue that captures the difference between myself and Eric Cantor in this race”, hoisted a far-right, no tolerance, immigration policy. Brat’s far-right, heavily conservative ideals were more attractive to the newly formed 7th district, thus Brat garnered 56% of the popular vote en route to victory.
A shift in conservative policy preferences among 7th district voters undoubtedly cost Cantor his seat, yet, highlights an intriguing political dichotomy. 18th century Irish philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke studied party structures and various forms of government, highlighting two key principles as counterintuitive to government efficiency. While serving as a member of the House of Commons in Great Britain, Burke stated, “ political control ultimately stems from the consent of the governed, as renewed at election cycles”, however, “the popular will should be moderated through institutions which are not tied to the electoral cycle, but which reflect other views, other interest and other values, and which permit and encourage collective vision and long-term perspective”(a).
Burke’s bold declarations prophesied modern day expectations of American citizens, as politicians are expected to appease their constituents to garner re-election, however, once elected, politicians are expected to make decisions that both please their constituents and advance domestic policy. Politicians are caught in difficult scenarios as they are elected by constituencies to act as delegates, yet, often feel compelled to fulfill roles of trustees.
In a Congress plagued by partisan divide, Cantor was faced with the challenging goal of appeasing 7th district voters and advancing national policies. If Cantor functioned solely as a delegate, fully adhering to the opinions of 7th district without compromise, national gridlock would result, and the government would appear inept. Therefore, Cantor sought compromise, however, desires to advance national policies were in vain, as Cantor’s straying from the opinions of his constituents resulted in his downfall.
Cantor’s loss, though harmful to the Republican Party, displays Burke’s dichotomy beautifully. Critics in the 7th district depicting Cantor as a political “waffler” and a “liberal” neglect to acknowledge Cantor’s need to appease two separate groups of conservatives with varying degrees of policy preferences. By engaging in compromise to advance immigration policy, Cantor served the country and appeased the national majority, however, he lost his job.
Although vast amounts of national center-right conservatives favor immigration reform, Cantor’s far-right minded district thought otherwise. Cantor’s historic loss highlights the dichotomy faced by politicians, as alignment with the policies of constituents and seeking to pass federal bills are trademarks of a successful political career, yet, often appear unable to coexist.
(a) Norman, Jesse. Edmund Burke, the First Conservative. Basic Books, New York, New York. 2013.