June, 12th 2014

Was Eric Cantor losing proof of America winning?

– Liz Mair

Political junkies across America have spent the last 24-plus hours pinching, slapping and throwing cold water at themselves in an effort to confirm that, yes, what they think happened to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, representative of Virginia's 7th congressional district (at least for a few more months!), really did happen on Tuesday night.

Some are jubilant. Some are depressed. Some find the whole situation comedic. Some observe it with a dispassionate, academic interest and feel nothing.
What we should all feel, though, is a sense of pride-- because whether you love Cantor, hate him, or just simply don't care about him, his loss proved something critical about American politics: Even in the era of the SuperPAC and $700-million presidential campaigns, money doesn't always-- or even as often as popular lore might dictate-- decide elections. Eric Cantor losing may just have been proof of America winning-- just not in the way that anti-Cantor conservatives or liberals are claiming.
This is a controversial statement that will ire a lot of political observers and activists. Liberals will scream "but the Koch brothers!" (never mind that plenty of strategists with strong track records, as well as reporters dedicated to analyzing every Koch move, will privately comment that Charles and David could be dramatically more effective than they are with far less money). Conservatives will scream "but George Soros!" (Soros also has some influence, but far less than a lot of right-wingers would have one believe). Good government types will point the fact that well-financed candidates do tend to perform well (lots of correlation, arguably much less causation). Campaign strategists who make their money off of advertising will tell you that advertising-- especially TV advertising-- is a highly effective method of voter contact, and voter contact wins elections.
And, yes, as in most other areas of American life, money is not completely irrelevant to political outcomes. But if electoral results were purely dictated by bank balances and expenditures, the Republican nominee in Cantor's now-to-be-former district would not be a guy who dished out $122,000 to win a primary against an incumbent who spent in excess of $5 million in a failed bid to hang on. The truth is that other factors-- constituent service, stances on issues of significant interest to activists, gaffes, personality, private and public sector record, what else is (or is not) on the ballot, playing well with others, playing well against still other others, or even simply showing up-- matter much more than conventional wisdom would dictate.
The Cantor-Brat race is hardly the only one to evidence this. 
The outcome of the Mississippi Senate race is not yet known, but according to figures reported by the Center for Responsive Politics, incumbent Thad Cochran has vastly outspent challenger Chris McDaniel, only to wind up in a runoff with him, which many observers expect Cochran to lose. McDaniel's campaign is better financed than has been Brat's to-date; nonetheless, he is still at a notable monetary disadvantage that does not appear likely to translate into an electoral loss, at least at this stage in the campaign. 
Another good example is that of the 2010 California gubernatorial campaign featuring notoriously well-financed, spending-happy Meg Whitman versus Jerry Brown, who by comparison looked like he was operating on a shoestring budget (though a somewhat better-padded one than would immediately be evident, some might argue, by virtue of the outsized role that unions play in California politics, and with less need to spend vast sums, others would argue, due to his having occupied the governor's mansion and the AG's office previously). Whitman spent over $170 million to Brown's less-than-$40 million in an effort to win that race. Furthermore, Whitman reportedly spent more than $120 million of that total on ad production and placement, whereas Brown spent about $30 million on the same line item. Whitman lost, and by a larger margin than did less well-financed, more conservative Carly Fiorina (for whom I consulted that cycle) running against Barbara Boxer. Money was no silver bullet for Whitman, and no killer liability for Brown.
Perhaps the best example, however, comes in the form of former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who according to the Center for Responsive Politics spent about double the amount of his challenger, former Sen. Jim Webb, in his race for re-election in 2006. No amount of money, however, seems likely to have been able to save Allen from the self-inflicted death blow that was his "macaca" comment, captured on video by a tracker and at this point probably seen by everyone apart from technology-rejecting ascetic monks living in rural Sri Lanka.
Finally, as a smart friend who read this ahead of me posting it pointed out, hey, if money really dictates all in American politics, we should have no trouble reading about President Steve Forbes in our history books.
Like the result on Tuesday, whether we love the winners of these races, loathe them, or simply are ambivalent about them, these are results to cherish as Americans who know that in this country, money often correlates with success, but also believe that it should not be the only or ultimate arbiter of outcomes-- social, educational, personal or indeed electoral. That is the real good news out of the Cantor-Brat primary result, and it says something good about our country and our political system. [intro]




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