Tuesday’s unexpected defeat of U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., feels like 1994 — at least for those who live in Eastern Washington.
That was the year then-U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat and 30-year incumbent from Spokane, was surprisingly defeated.
Cantor’s loss to a fellow Republican who was backed by the tea-party movement (that once backed Cantor), is being spun as proof the tea party remains a powerful political force in America.
Maybe. Yet, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., seen as one of the most likely incumbents to fall to a tea party challenge, vanquished his six challengers by capturing 50 percent of the total vote.
It seems the stunning defeat of Cantor is more of a local (or regional) story than a national one.
Foley’s loss two decades ago — much like Cantor’s today — was touted by the national newspaper pundits, TV commentators and political experts as an indicator the nation was becoming more politically conservative.
But Foley’s district was conservative long before Foley was elected.
Foley was vulnerable politically because he was speaker of the House, one of the most powerful political leaders in the nation. The demands of national leadership and as a high-profile Democrat made him a target to blame for the policies of his more liberal colleagues in his party.
For example, when an initiative in Washington state called for term limits for members of Congress, Foley fought it on constitutional principles.
Foley was correct from a legal standpoint, but it was a political loser. George Nethercutt and his supporters used it to paint Foley as being out of touch with the values of his Eastern Washington district.
Based on all Foley had done for his district since he became the top dog in the House, the accusation was thin. Nevertheless, it worked. In politics, perception is reality and Nethercutt’s showing at the polls proved the idiom to be true.
Cantor lost his primary race to Dave Brat, an economics professor and political novice (like Nethercutt at the time), who latched onto the hot-button issue of immigration. Brat went after Cantor by accusing the second most powerful leader in the GOP-controlled House of supporting immigration legislation that would give “amnesty” to millions of people living illegally in the U.S.
While Cantor was in Washington, D.C., Brat was using the out-of-touch brush to sway voters.
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, who retired from Congress in 1987, was fond of the saying, “All politics is local.” He was right.
That’s a major reason why O’Neill left Congress on his own terms, and Cantor did not.