On Tuesday, June 10, 2014, House Majority Leader and longtime Virginia Republican Eric Cantor lost reelection to a previously unheard of college professor and Tea Party candidate David Brat. Since the primary, supporters, critics and even Cantor himself have speculated as to why and how he lost. There are claims that Cantor spent too much time away from his district, which includes Richmond, leaving voters feeling disconnected from their longtime representative. Others point to Cantor’s middle-of-the-road stance on immigration, which contradicted the more radical public opinion of the conservative Richmond area. Still, some blame the Cantor camp’s flawed internal polling information, which led Cantor to believe that he was ahead by 34 points going into the election.
Either way, Cantor’s shocking loss represents a turning point in modern political campaigns for several reasons. First, it’s the first time that a House Majority Leader has failed to win reelection. Cantor was widely considered a shoe-in for the next Speaker of the House position after John Boehner retires. Second, as I’ll examine later, Cantor’s loss shows that traditional campaign tactics, including traditional media plans, may no longer be enough to secure even the most predictable of victories. Finally, and most importantly, Dave Brat’s successful challenge suggests the weakening of the two-party structure in American politics that scholars have predicted for years.
In “The Internet and Four Dimensions of Citizenship,” Neuman, Bimber, and Hindman attempt to analyze and explain the effect that new media technologies, which they collectively call the Internet, have had and will continue to have on political campaigns. Ultimately, they conclude that although it may still be too early to tell, the Internet will not necessarily create a substitute for traditional media like television, yet (28). In the Eric Cantor/David Brat race, we see the effects of television clearly: Cantor spent $2 million on vicious attack ads that labeled Brat as a liberal. For his own part, Brat used very little traditional media, getting plugged on a few conservative talk radio shows. Come election night, we see that the traditional media tactics dominated – just not the way Cantor had intended. His attack ads ultimately showed voters that there was an alternative to the disconnected incumbent. Brat himself said, “They gave me $1 million in name ID, and I think that got us going.”
Certainly, the backfire of Cantor’s traditional media usage didn’t lose him the election entirely. There’s still the flawed polling and the immigration debate to worry about. However, it goes to show that traditional media still very much matters in the world of political campaigns, and it’s not a tool you want to misuse. Had voters in Virginia’s seventh district not been told Brat’s name over and over on television – a medium that clearly reached them effectively – they may never have known he was a legitimate option.
Most of the expert opinions in the mainstream media today have analyzed the situation from the perspective of things Cantor did wrong, rather than things Brat did right. This type of analysis begs the question, though: Why was there room for Cantor’s plan to backfire at all? He had represented the district since 2001, winning solidly even during the depths of the recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What context has developed, then, that made a challenger successful this time around?
The long answer, though, is that Brat (and his Tea Party affiliation) took advantage of the weakening (albeit ever so slight) of the two-party system that scholars have predicted would occur as a result of the Internet. Neuman, Bimber, and Hindman considered this in their piece. Simply put, the argument is that new media technologies allow people more access to diverse views, should they seek them out, and allow marginalized groups an opportunity to enter the public sphere without the resources of the large, institutionalized establishments. Neuman, Bimber, and Hindman concede that highly salient elections are not dramatically changed by the Internet because well-resourced candidates can still afford to pursue much more effective tactics than under-resourced ones (24). At the same time, though, the trio asserts that new media allows decentralized, collective-action-oriented groups to mobilize people, even if only temporarily, around a certain issue (26).
The Cantor/Brat race occurred against this unfamiliar and largely uncertain backdrop. The Tea Party movement has come a long way in recent years, gaining credibility thanks to a strong, decentralized foothold online (Willey, 6). This decentralized growth, according to John Willey of Georgetown University, has allowed the Tea Party to reach new people and take advantage of viral technology. In the Cantor/Brat race, this decentralized success of the Tea Party helped give Brat his credibility as a legitimate alternative to Cantor.
Ultimately, the credibility of the Tea Party among decentralized voters represents a limited, yet important crack in the two-party political structure. Voters saw Brat, a Tea Party candidate, as a legitimate alternative to the broken, traditional ways of Washington. New media, although not extensively used in the campaign itself, created this context by allowing the Tea Party to grow online in decentralized pockets across the country so that voters and politicians now see it as a real actor, despite its radical and still-developing identity.
Bell, Benjamin. “Rep. Eric Cantor ‘Absolutely’ Shocked by Primary Loss.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 15 June 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2014/06/rep-eric-cantor-absolutely-shocked-by-primary-loss/>.
Chaggaris, Steve, and Anthony Salvantano. “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor Loses Re-election Bid.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 11 June 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/house-majority-leader-eric-cantor-loses-re-election-bid/>.
Milligan, Susan. “The Perils of Politics.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 12 June 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014. <http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/susan-milligan/2014/06/12/cantor-learns-the-perils-of-poll-based-campaign-coverage>.
Neuman, W. Russell, Bruce Bimber, and Matthew Hindman. The Internet and Four Dimensions of Citizenship. The Oxford Handbook of American Public Opinion and the Media. 20 March 2010. <http://www.wrneuman.com/nav_pub_92_275693743.pdf>.
Sherman, Jake, and Alex Isenstadt. “How David Brat Won.” POLITICO. 11 June 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014. <http://www.politico.com/story/2014/06/2014-virginia-primary-david-brat-107700_Page2.html>.
Willey, John S. The Decentralized Social Movement: How the Tea Party Gained Relevancy in the New Media Era. Diss. Georgetown U, 2011. Ann Arbor: ProQuest UMI Dissertations, 2011. Print.