Catch of the Day: Eric Cantor’s Companions in Defeat

A Catch to Aaron Blake at the Fix for his quick write-up of the four House incumbents who managed to lose primaries this year. As Blake points out, yesterday’s defeat of scandal-plagued Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney belongs with the thoroughly predictable and understandable losses of an accidental Michigan Republican, Kerry Bentivolio, and an aged Texas Republican, Ralph Hall. Members of the House really have to go out of their way to fail to be renominated.

Wait … I forgot one, didn’t I? The final round of primaries made it more clear than ever what a freakish event the defeat of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor earlier this year really was. As Blake points out, there was no Tea Party surge this time (in large part because mainstream Republicans decided to ape Tea Party rhetoric and already shared Tea Party policy positions). There was no close historical comparison when it happened, and the rest of the primary calendar hasn’t offered any.

There are two questions of interpretation from Cantor’s ouster. One is whether future Republicans treat it as a fluke with no greater lessons for them than perhaps a general reminder to always pay attention to the district, or whether they see it as yet another reason to worry more about potential primary defeat than about general elections. Neither is a particularly serious threat, but politicians are paranoid by nature, and the only real question is what they will be paranoid about. Rational calculations don’t always enter into it.

The other question is whether Republicans will interpret Cantor’s defeat as a reason to avoid leadership posts. Serving in those positions has always been somewhat risky; leadership is always going to be a trade-off in which ambitious politicians gain more influence within the House in exchange for commitments and obligations that can be electorally dangerous. The more those risks are occasionally realized, the more potential leaders will opt out — and the smaller the pool for leadership positions, the worse the odds of producing quality people for those positions.

I’d love to see some reporting on how the Cantor defeat is being interpreted.

And: Nice catch!

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.