The Redistricting Factor in Cantor’s Defeat

There has obviously been no shortage of post-race analyses of Eric Cantor’s primary defeat on Tuesday.  No one has claimed credit for predicting the outcome; the most accurate polling had Cantor up by 13 percent, while his internal polling had him up by 34 percent.   Since defeating Cantor, David Brat has been labeled a Tea-Partier, even though he never received the sort of outside funding that many Tea Party candidates have.

There are a couple of interesting pieces out there that focus on redistricting as at least a partial contributor to Cantor’s loss.  Yesterday’s Washington Post Wonkblog cites data compiled by Greg Giroux of Bloomberg News  showing that in recent decades, Democrats are twice as likely to lose primaries as  Republicans, and therefore poses the question of what happened to Cantor.

Interestingly, the data show that incumbent Members of Congress are most likely to be defeated in primaries that take place in election years following decennial redistricting; that is, years that end in “2.”   Since the introduction of the widespread use of sophisticated software to guide redistricting after the 1980 census, those years have been 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2012.  In those four elections, a total of 53 incumbents lost in primaries, 34 Democrats and 19 Republicans.

Historically, about twice as many Democrats as Republicans have suffered losses in primaries, in part because the Democratic Party has generally been more ideologically diverse.  Additionally, redistricting has more often created districts in which two Democratic incumbents faced one another in a primary, which by definition means that one of the incumbents will lose.  Because there have been more primaries that pitted Democrats against each other, it also suggests that Republicans have been more successful at redistricting, at least in this dimension.

One goal of redistricting is to strengthen congressional districts for the party that controls redistricting.  But redistricting is directed at affecting the results in the general election, not in the primary. It’s been observed that Cantor’s defeat can be blamed in part on “overenthusiastic redistricting.” When Cantor’s district was redrawn after 2010, his district was made safer Republican, as intended, trading more Democratic precincts for more conservative Republican precincts.  But it was precisely in those new districts where Cantor performed poorly.  I’m not suggesting that overenthusiastic redistricting was the only reason for Cantor’s defeat, but I think it’s reasonable to suggest that it contributed to his loss.

One question would be why Cantor wasn’t defeated in 2012, which was the first election after the 2010 post-census redistricting, and would fit the pattern of years in which incumbents are most likely to lose.  In that election, six Republicans and six Democrats were defeated in primaries, while this year only one other incumbent has lost in a primary, Republican Ralph Hall of Texas.  One answer, which has been suggested by Davis Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, is that Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, is less of a “fit” with his new constituents.  Perhaps it took a cycle for them to get to know him better.

In 2012, Cantor easily defeated challenger Floyd Bayne, 79 percent to 21 percent. Cantor received more than 37,000 votes that year, while Bayne received less than 10,000 votes.  On Tuesday, Cantor received about 8,400 fewer votes that he did in 2012, but his opponent received more than 36,000 votes, with turnout 38 per cent percent higher than in 2012.  Cantor’s 2012 primary challenger, who was a substitute teacher and Civil War re-enactor, probably wasn’t a credible candidate, which would obviously be a factor as well.  I also think that over the last two years Cantor has aligned himself more closely with Speaker Boehner. There’s no single reason why Cantor was defeated, but I think the idea of “overenthusiastic redistricting” tells an interesting part of the story.

Ken Gold is director of the Government Affairs Institute

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