The Squeezed-Out Political Middle

Last week, Washington DC was abuzz with news of the unexpected primary election defeat of Eric Cantor. Rep. Cantor had enjoyed a meteoric rise to the No. 2 leadership position in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. He often was characterized as likely successor to John Boehner as speaker of the house, assuming that Republicans remained in control. Cantor’s defeat came at the hands of a relatively unknown, small-college professor of economics named David Brat. Professor Brat teaches at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.

Lessons abound in this election upset. First, Brat raised only about one-tenth of the money raised by Cantor, yet he won by a 55-45 percent margin. Could it be that money is less important than historically thought? Could it be that technology-oriented campaigning, which requires much less money, is the wave of the future? If so, will this change the lobbyist/fundraiser influence rumored to control the halls of Congress? While these questions are rhetorical, the answers will impact those seeking office in the next few years.

Another concern resulting from this election is that Brat was a Tea Party candidate. Cantor, too, originally was elected as a Tea Party favorite, though he veered toward the center as his political sail caught wind and he rose to the position of majority leader of the House. Could it be that reports of the Tea Party’s demise have been greatly exaggerated? The Tea Party has suffered many losses during this primary election season, yet it also has pulled off a few upsets — though none larger than this one. The strength of the Tea Party is a concern to traditional Republicans. While traditional Republicans have been largely supportive of business interests, the Tea Party is more intent on the social agenda and significant reduction of the regulatory burden cast upon the citizenry. If the conservative wing of the Republican Party is indeed shifting further to the right and becoming more focused on social issues, and if the liberal wing of the Democrat Party is moving further left and becoming more interested in those same social issues — but on the opposite side — what happens to the centrist agenda regarding business interests? What happens to compromise? If we are setting the table for more gridlock, how will Congress ever solve any of our real problems? What might this portend for the presidential election in a couple of years?

One of the results that could emerge from this tension is the formation of a third party. Surely one of those three parties would find its footing in the middle, changing the entire specter of the American political structure.

I had the privilege of meeting Eric Cantor on a few occasions. I found him to be a bright and committed legislator who worked tirelessly for his caucus. Cantor frequently attended fundraisers throughout the country in support of his fellow House Republicans, raising countless dollars for the elections of his peers. Whether you agreed with his positions on the issues or not, the Republicans have lost an influential young leader who had the ability to raise money, communicate with Democrats and create a sizable following in the middle. It will be difficult to replace him. Thank you, Rep. Cantor, for your contributions!

– S. Joe DeHaven

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