Earmarks and Eric Cantor’s Primary Loss

Ashley Parker and Jonathan Martin have an excellent piece in The New York Times on the changing demographics of voters in suburban districts and how that led to primary defeats of Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi (now in a runoff) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia.

I think they underplay a critical element: earmarks in appropriations.  Cantor swore off of earmarks 8-10 years ago exacerbating his inability to connect to his new district and ultimately cost him his job.  While he faced these same voters in 2012, the large amount of “free media” support that his 2014 opponent received put this race into a new category – one where the challenger was seen as viable.

Members in leadership positions are more prone to losing touch with individual voters; it is the nature of having to run a Party in Congress.  In the bad old days leadership could use the appropriations process to remind voters of the need for keeping them in Washington: a bridge here, a water system there, and a military base improvement project down the road, all brought jobs and higher quality of life.  Members of Congress no longer have that luxury. And when 40-60 percent of voters have been in your district for less than a decade, they tend to care more about national issues rather than their own pocketbooks.

In the Cantor election, voters did not have strong positive associations with their Member because they were new and/or did not see anything Cantor did locally, only what he was being credited with doing nationally.  Many who normally didn’t vote in an off-year (non-Presidential) primary were fed up enough with the national party to actually come out and take it out on their “National” leadership.  In addition, Cantor’s support tailed off from 37,369 votes in 2012 to 28,902 in 2014; not uncommon going into a non-Presidential year.  What is unexplained is the significant increase of votes against Cantor which went from 9,668 in 2012 to 36,120 in 2014.

As long as Members of Congress continue to tie their own hands by forbidding the use of the appropriations process to focus government funds on needed projects in their districts, expect more leadership Members to be “Cantored” in the future.