It is said money talks — but is it possible that rightwing radio talks louder?
Survey the post-mortems on Dave Brat’s upset victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and it is hard not to consider immigration one of the prime motivating factors.
“There is no one reason why Cantor lost, but a crucial part of the story no doubt begins in Central America,” writes George Zornick in The Nation. Zornick notes what others have observed in recent days, that a story that has been of only tertiary interest to most establishment news services (Al Jazeera America last covered it here and here), has been a hair-on-fire staple of rightwing media outlets.
A surge of unaccompanied immigrant children caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has created what President Barack Obama called an “urgent humanitarian situation,” and left the administration scrambling to shelter, aid, and relocate what is expected to be more than 60,000 underage refugees this year. The children, fleeing violence in Central America, are expected to cost the federal government well over $2 billion, and their future plays right into a narrative that motivates opponents of even some of the most mild of immigration reforms.
That supposedly low-hanging fruit, the DREAM Act, or an even lower-hanging GOP alternative called the KIDS Act, was specifically targeted at young immigrants — though, it should be stressed, would never apply to new unaccompanied minors now crossing the border — offering (depending on the version) paths to citizenship for long-term U.S. residents who graduated college or enlisted in the military. But it was an errant friendly remark on the idea of granting the more-affordable in-state tuition at Virginia schools to qualifying immigrants that left Cantor exposed on his right flank.
Take, for example, rightwing radio host Laura Ingram — who has been hammering Cantor on immigration all year — at a June 2 Brat rally:
I kind of wish, thinking about this, that President Obama would have thought this through a little bit more. And maybe, for getting Sgt. Bergdahl out of captivity, instead of sending five Taliban MVPs over there, he could have just traded one Eric Cantor.
Referencing the children at the border a day later on her radio show, Ingram blamed Cantor for the “enticement” of immigrants into America, calling it “an invasion facilitated by our own government.”
And on Election Day, Ingram posted a reminder to her website, urging voters to “VOTE BRAT” to punish Cantor for “announcing that he will work with Barack Obama to pass amnesty for illegal children.”
Similar fevered attention was paid by numerous other like-minded outlets, from Fox News to Breitbart.
And Cantor likely did himself no favors by going heavy against all immigration reform in his campaign mailers in the last week. The perception of Cantor as “soft” on immigration was already formed, and all the flyers did was remind his district just how big an issue this was (to them, at least).
But the campaign literature reminded voters of something else, too.
It is impossible not to be wowed by the massive disparity in campaign expenditures in the race for this GOP nomination. Cantor out-raised and out-spent Brat by something better than 26 to 1. While Brat seemed all-but-invisible to the typical funders of the insurgent right, Cantor’s money fueled his own myth-making machine and ultimately laid bare his big business roots.
Before the issue of immigration was front-and-center, Cantor’s role in the House leadership made him almost genetically predisposed to anger the populist right. His close alliances with business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and financial industry players (like Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who called Cantor “a sensible politician who dedicated himself to public service” while overseeing a $26,600 donation to Cantor’s campaign) was not a secret — indeed, Cantor exploited these connections as he raised money and stumped for Republican candidates nationwide.
But the business of being Majority Leader gave Brat the opportunity to label Cantor as too close to big business:
"All the investment banks up in New York and D.C. or whatever, those guys should've gone to jail," Brat told fellow Tea Partiers in one campaign speech. "Instead of going to jail, where did they go? They went onto Eric's Rolodex. That's where they all are, and they're sending him big checks."
The critique stuck to Cantor like bugs on a bumper, and played to some of the populist outrage that was once at the core of what eventually was labeled the tea party movement. “The issue is the Republican Party has been paying way too much attention to Wall Street,” said Brat in a post-victory interview with Fox News, “and not enough attention to Main Street.”
Cantor’s cash also afforded him a luxury not available to Brat: Internal polling.
Much of the Tuesday night shock at the primary upset was primed by pre-election polls that showed Cantor leading Brat by whopping margins. Only the Cantor campaign could afford such polling, and he contracted a firm that is developing a track record for telling the Republican establishment just what it wants to hear. The campaign then shared their results with the media, which internalized the message:
The question in this race is how large Cantor’s margin of victory will be. If he wins by more than 20 points, it will likely quell rumblings about his popularity back home. If Brat falls within 10 points of the seven-term congressman, it could stoke them.
The Washington Post replaced that text after Brat’s win, but, needless to say, rumblings — and Virginia conservatives — were stoked.
But a more careful look at Cantor’s situation and the issues at play outside his Beltway stomping grounds might have predicted the Majority Leader’s fall and actually connected the issues that left him felled.
A month before the primary, at the Republican district convention, Cantor was not only booed by the audience in what should have been the center of his power base, his hand-picked candidate for district leader was bested by a man allied with Brat. And this happened despite Cantor going as far as renting out all the nearby hotel rooms to flood the convention with his supporters.
It was another cocky overreach, an obvious display of entrenched power and disposable cash that again illustrated a disconnect between Cantor and his constituents — his Virginia constituents, anyway.
And here’s where it all comes full circle and home to roost. At the root of the immigration attacks on Cantor, and a factor in much of the opposition to immigration reform, is the perceived threat to American jobs. Brat said as much Tuesday night:
[Immigration] is the most symbolic issue that captures the issues between myself and Eric Cantor in this race, but it also captures that fissure between Main Street and Wall Street. So you look at people’s intentions and political intentions and you ask yourself why are the Republicans doing this, why are they so intent on immigration reform? And there’s no answer that makes logical sense. It’s clear they’re doing this for the Chamber of Commerce and they want cheap labor and expanded workforce and whatever and that’s gonna lower wages for everyone else.
It is not a new argument, but as to whether it has any more credibility than the idea that Eric Cantor was seriously interested in broad immigration reform, as with so much in politics, perception is reality.
Business interests — and that includes those that fund conservative activist groups — do tend to favor changes to immigration law, or are at least publicly indifferent to the issue. But many rank-and-file Republican voters feel quite strongly that corporate wealth and the immigrant poor have conspired (explicitly or implicitly) to hold down wages and deprive them of jobs. In their eyes, Eric Cantor’s fealty to Wall Street and flexibility on immigration were two sides to the same very large coin.
The connection served to confirm the disconnect between Cantor and his district, and, perhaps more importantly to political observers, the difference between how Washington sees a problem and how the rest of America does.
Did Cantor lose because he was soft on immigration or sweet on Wall Street? To the engaged right, in his district and on the airwaves, the answer is “Yes.”