RVA Politics is a blog about politics in the state of Virginia And the capital city of Richmond.

The author is a political scientist. Please don't hold that against him.

 

Forbes is not Cantor

The dust has only just cleared from last week's tremendous upset in the Virginia 2nd. Scott Taylor's defeat of Congressman Randy Forbes in the Republican Congressional primary all but assures Taylor the seat, and sends Forbes home.

Some analysts were comparing Forbes' loss to Eric Cantor's historic defeat two years ago, with the Washington Times referring to an "insurgent wave" that included the national Sanders and Trump campaigns. But there are some big differences between these national trends, and even Cantor's loss to Dave Brat in VA, and what happened to Forbes last week.

First, Cantor's defeat was emblematic of significant fault lines in the Republican Party in a way that Forbes' loss is not. Cantor represented Beltway Republicanism at a time when Tea Party forces were becoming stronger in the Party. Thanks to a number of trends, including the financial crisis, the Republican grassroots were moving from a largely Christian evangelical movement towards a more economics-oriented, anti-establishment fury. Republican leadership continues to have trouble adjusting to this shift (as every interview with Paul Ryan makes clear).

Still, even Cantor's defeat shows that national trends are filtered through local conditions for Congressional races; it's still the district that matters most. And Cantor had clearly lost touch with the particular Republicans in his district, making Dave Brat's victory easy to explain, at least in hindsight. Brat (full disclosure: a former colleague of mine at Randolph-Macon College) worked a tireless campaign, appearing at many local events, going door-to-door, and using targeted voting data.

Cantor's loss was certainly a huge upset, but the fact that he was the House Majority Leader made his loss seem even more seismic than it might actually have been. Yes, Brat rode an anti-establishment wave; but if Eric Cantor had run even a halfway-credible campaign, he probably would have won. Pundits want to place historic upsets in a bigger context, but sometimes it's just the little, local things that bring the big guys down. For example, House Speaker Tom Foley lost his re-election bid in 1994, but most saw the loss as related to his opposition to term limits in his home state, not national issues.

Randy Forbes is also clearly not the victim of anti-establishment fervor; he was not particularly disliked by grassroots Republicans. Instead, he became the unfortunate victim of extraordinary obstacles resulting from the redrawing of district lines in Virginia. Forbes, like most incumbents, would have been fine in his old 4th district, averaging 60% majorities in his last 4 elections.  But the uncertainly caused by the new district lines convinced him to try running in the 2nd, hoping that his years of support for the area's defense industry would earn him votes. It was pretty clear that voters didn't buy his argument, but it was an argument made under very unusual circumstances.

There is one final area where Forbes is similar to Cantor; they both "went negative," and it backfired on them. Two years ago, Cantor infamously tried to paint his opponent as a "liberal college professor." To paraphrase a famous debate quote: I served with Dave Brat. I knew Dave Brat. Dave Brat is no liberal. The idea was ludicrous to everyone else who knew Brat, including the voters he met in the district; the resulting backlash in the district played into the Brat campaign's narrative of Cantor as dishonest and out of touch.

Forbes similarly used negative attack ads, including promoting dubious claims of FEC violations by his opponent and even cropping old Facebook photos of Taylor. In one mailer, Forbes tried to claim that Taylor was "convicted in at least four different courts across the country." Politifact pointed out that these were all traffic violations, and while Taylor doesn't seem like the safest driver, his court record doesn't suggest the rampant criminality of which Forbes accused him. Taylor used these incidents to help promote his version of Forbes as a dishonest carpetbagger, and apparently voters found that story more compelling than Forbes'.

And so now Virginia's Congressional delegation will add yet another noob, replacing a 16-year representative with important committee positions that helped deliver jobs and money to the state. If Rob Wittman's run for Governor works out as well as he plans, then by 2017 there may be as many as NINE (out of 11) Virginia reps with single-digit years of experience in the House. As I've noted before, this may not be the best news for a state dependent on federal dollars for so much of its economic health.

McDonnell's win also a victory for VA GOP

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