WASHINGTON – Last week, perhaps the biggest political news story of the year to-date occurred just 100 miles south of the U.S. Capitol in the northern suburbs of Richmond, Va.
In case you missed it, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost the Republican primary in Virginia’s 7th congressional district to a relative unknown, Tea Party upstart named Dave Brat. Brat, an economics professor at Ashland, Va.’s Randolph-Macon College, will now face fellow Randolph-Macon professor Jack Trammel, the Democratic Party’s nominee for Cantor’s soon-to-be old seat.
The takeaway: If this can sneak up and happen to someone as powerful and as well-financed as Cantor, it can happen to any Republican incumbent caught off guard.
The Monday morning quarterbacks are attributing Cantor’s loss to a wide range of factors – taking his seat in Congress for granted, being too cozy to corporate interest like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or really just being in the wrong place at the wrong time – namely being seen as soft on immigration, as the news cycle focuses on the deluge of illegal Central American youths coming across border.
The 2014 Alabama Republican primary has come and gone. With exception of the July 15 runoff for the GOP nomination for Alabama’s 6th congressional district, there likely will not be spillover from the Cantor-Brat contest reaching Alabama, as it may with other primary races around the country. But it may come into play in the 2016 election cycle.
It takes a certain kind of person to run for political office, whether it’s dog catcher or president. In recent years, the Yellowhammer State has had some sketchy candidates seeking office, trying to ride the Tea Party’s wave.
The Brat victory however, creates a roadmap where the path to success doesn’t include creating a gimmick YouTube video with the hopes it goes viral. Instead, it can consist of a real, intellectual fight against the status quo.
The latest Gallup poll puts Congress’ approval rating at 13 percent. That’s about where it has been since the 2012 election cycle. Yet in 2012, 91 percent of congressional incumbents won their contests for reelection.
That suggests that while Congress as an entity is perceived the problem, locally the individual member is perceived as someone who is fighting for the right causes within that entity. Until David Brat came along, none of these upstart challengers on either the Democrat or Republican side successfully portrayed their incumbent competition as part of the problem of Washington.
With exception of whoever wins the 6th congressional district in November, every member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama is theoretically vulnerable in at least one of the same ways Cantor proved to be in his contest.
There has been some corporate and U.S. Chamber of Commerce money in the last few years spent in Alabama contests. In 2010, the Chamber dabbled in the 2nd congressional district race between Martha Roby and then-incumbent Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Montgomery). Bright was only one of the five Democrats the Chamber supported that year but Bright’s effort still came up short.
More recently and closer to home, the Chamber spent nearly $200,000 on Rep. Bradley Byrne’s behalf in his contest against Dean Young last fall. Right now, being perceived to be in the pockets of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is touting an immigration policy that is not popular with conservatives is a bad place for an incumbent Republican to be, at least for now.
A similar campaign with the right candidate and the backing of any one, conservative radio heavy hitter, like Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin or Ann Coulter could be problematic for an incumbent like Byrne, particularly if the immigration issue is still relevant in 2016.
The other vulnerability, which is more prevalent amongst Alabama’s House delegation, is the reluctance to go against the party elders, whether it is the Republican House Leadership for the five Republican members running for reelection or the reluctance to go against President Barack Obama for the state’s lone Democrat, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Birmingham).
Every member is vying for that specific committee assignment or leadership post within a particular committee, all in the name of being in a better position to bring home federal government goodies, or protect the goodies that are already here – military bases, NASA, federal government contracts, etc.
Rep. Martha Roby (R-Montgomery) is one example of how loyalty to the House Republican leadership pays off. Early on, Politico mentioned her as a member on the verge of being within House Speaker John Boehner’s circle of trust.
Remarkably, Roby has been able to use her office to preserve military programs within her district at Maxwell AFB and Fort Rucker. She’s also been appointed to what will prove to be a very high-profile position on the House Select Committee on Benghazi, led by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).
As we learned last week in Virginia, there is a “throw the bums out” sentiment that can be politically costly for an incumbent if things line up just right. Fortunately for Alabama incumbents, most challenges in this Tea Party era may have been perhaps a little too extreme.
But if the right candidate comes along, there is a lot ammunition available that could show these incumbents are part of the problem that reflects Congress’ abysmal approval rating.