A Primary Lesson

The House Majority Leader, Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia, lost in a primary election yesterday.  He was soundly defeated by David Brat, a conservative economics professor who was supported by elements of the “tea party.”

The result astonished the inside-the-beltway world of Washington, D.C., where Cantor was a fixture on the Sunday morning talk shows and was seen as a rising figure, a strategist and power broker, and potentially a future Speaker of the House.  Analysts are scrambling to explain how Cantor, who was expected to win handily, could be defeated by a political unknown.  The issue of illegal Immigration apparently played a large role in the campaign, and some have suggested that Cantor had lost touch with his district and, with his growing national profile, may have been perceived as too big for his britches.

I’ll leave the analysis to the punditry, and will make only two observations.  First, Brat was grossly outspent by Cantor’s campaign.  The first New York Times article linked above says Brat spent a little more than $200,000, whereas Cantor raised $5.4 million.  In short, all of the horror stories we’ve been hearing about the overwhelming power of national money in politics were disproved in this instance, where Brat’s low-money campaign, based on local and state supporters, nevertheless energized the voters.  The next time you get a money appeal from a candidate of the right or left who says he needs to keep up in the fundraising race with his opponent, you might remind them of the Cantor-Brat campaign — and then ask them where they stand on issues of interest to you.

Second, I think it is a good thing when established politicians are challenged and made to defend their positions.  We would all be better off if our elected representatives were thinking more about staying connected with the people in their district or state and less about hobnobbing with the D.C. political and media elite.  I’d love to see more Senators and Representatives who have served for years without serious contest have to return home, face a spunky challenger who isn’t intimidated by a lopsided fundraising advantage, and explain their records.  That’s exactly how our political system is supposed to work.

The Economics Of Early Primaries

Don’t look now, but states are jockeying to move up the dates of their primaries, caucuses, and other electoral contrivances.  Florida has indicated that it is going to move its primary to January 31.  If it does so, expect South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Iowa to follow suit, so they can maintain their current positions in the presidential pecking order.  Such a result could mean the Iowa caucuses happen on January 9, 2012.  Happy New Year!  It’s time to vote!

It’s silly to be voting in January, 10 months before the actual election.  No rational person would want to front-load the process because it increases the risk that a flukey candidate might get on a roll and knock everyone out of the race, only to be exposed months later as a hapless lightweight who isn’t ready for prime time.  Rick Perry’s recent bumbling, fumbling, stumbling performance at a Florida debate aptly demonstrates why it makes sense to draw out the process, to give the candidates the chance to mature and to give the public a reasonable amount of time to get to know who they’re voting for.

So why is there this irresistible impetus to keep moving things up?  States might claim it’s to maintain a tradition or because they want to have a say in selecting the candidates, but I think the real reason is money.  Huge sums are spent on political campaigns these days, and the media flocks to the early primary states.  Early primaries have more candidates and more campaigns spending cash, and states want to get their share.  So why not schedule an early primary and then sit back and watch the hordes of candidates, staffers, consultants, pundits, and reporters descend, fill your hotels, restaurants and bars, buy the TV and radio spots and employ the printing presses, and pump up those hospitality and sales tax receipts?

Early primaries are good business.