No matter what else he accomplishes in life, David Brat's obituary may well read "Giant Killer" or something to that effect. The fact that the formerly obscure Randolph-Macon College Economics Professor defeated U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in his bid for renomination to his congressional seat sent shockwaves through the body politic.
The Tea Party and national conservative forces from outside the district coalesced and galvanized to defeat Eric Cantor who did not meet their ideological litmus test. Cantor's efforts to increase his national political profile by gallivanting around the country speaking at political events and appearing on national television rather than spending time in his Congressional District, effectuated a fissure between himself and his constituents. This resulted in few Republicans coming out to support him in the primary. Many constituents came to think Cantor viewed his seat as a perpetual sinecure, and that he did not take seriously the prospect of losing it. Cantor's job disproval rating among his constituents rose to a staggering 65 percent.
Cantor was the biggest political figure in the U.S. House of Representatives to lose a re-election bid since 1994, when U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) lost his re-election bid to Republican George Nethercutt, a little-known attorney. The circumstances of Foley's loss were different from Cantor's. Unlike Cantor, Foley had no trouble garnering his party's nomination. Foley also had a history of delivering for his constituents, having secured funding for infrastructure and for renovating Fairchild Air Force base. Foley was also instrumental in bringing the World's Fair to Spokane, the flagship city of the district. Furthermore, Foley had served as Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, which was a significant boon to his rural constituents, especially wheat farmers.
Foley, however, represented a moderately conservative Congressional district in Eastern Washington, and his leadership position in the House may have been the only thing keeping the district from going Republican. In 1994, Foley was seen as an enabler of President Bill Clinton's domestic agenda, having shepherded through the 1993 Budget Reconciliation Act (which included a tax increase), supporting the Clinton health care legislation, and supporting a federal ban on assault weapons.
There is precedent for members of Congress who, like Cantor, become national figures, while spending little time in their districts dealing with the parochial issues. Fore example, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-GA) spent much time lambasting the Democratic-Controlled House, and promoted a conservative insurrection in the House. Yet he spent little time in his district dealing with provincial issues. In a 1990 race that was on few political observers' radar, Gingrich, the Republican Whip, defeated little-known Democratic challenger David Worley by just 983 votes. Had Worley been awarded funding from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he likely would have toppled Gingrich. The day after the election, a humbled Gingrich told the New York Times that he got the message from his constituents: "They want me to come home more often to pay more attention to local issue, and I'm going to do it."
Two years later, just four years before he led the Republican Revolution of 1994 where the Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years, Gingrich was re-elected to his seat by just 987 votes. Much of Gingrich's distinct was redrawn, forcing him to move to a new district. His Republican primary opponent, State Representative Heman Clarke, exploited Gingrich's move to the district and made an issue of the 22 bad checks Gingrich had written on the House Bank.
House Speaker Joe Cannon (R-IL) was probably the most powerful House Speaker in American history. His moniker was "The Czar of the House." He served concomitantly as House speaker and as Chairman of the House Committee on Rules, and garnered the power to personally appoint members to the committees. U.S. Senator George Norris (R-NE) mused that the national government "is divided into the Senate, the President, and the Speaker." The conservative Cannon worked to keep the redoubtable progressive faction of the GOP off of important committees. However, in 1910, the progressives joined with the Democrats to dislodge Cannon from the rules committee, and Cannon subsequently lost the speakership when the Democrats took control of the House Chamber.
Two years later, with his title and power stripped from him by Frank O'Hair, who had never served beyond his town's school board, defeated Cannon in his bid for re-election. Cannon came back however to defeat O'Hair in 1914, and served an additional four terms in the House.
Cannon's successor as House Speaker was Democrat Champ Clarke of Missouri. Clarke was the early Democratic Frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1912, but lost the nomination to New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson.
Progressive Party nominee Theodore Roosevelt, a former Republican President, split the Republican vote, making it nearly impossible for Republican William Howard Taft to be re-elected. In 1918, Champ Clarke, serving as U.S. House Majority Leader, was swallowed up in the Republican tide and lost his seat to Probate Judge Theodore W. Hukriede.
Joe Martin, who had served as both House Speaker and alternatively as House Minority Leader for 20 years and who had presided over five Republican National Conventions, was ousted from House Leadership in 1959 by conservative Charles Halleck (R-IA). Halleck argued that Martin was too accommodating to the Democratic Leadership led by his friend, Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX). Yet Martin stayed in the House as a backbencher, and was eventually defeated for renomination in 1966 by Governors Councilor Margaret Heckler, who actually ran to Martin's left in the Republican Primary.
Cannon, Clarke, and Martin went from being at the epicenter of national power to becoming former members of the U.S. Congress who could not even keep their respective seats.
The House is not the only Congressional chamber that has seen political figures rise nationally while losing support at home. J. William Fulbright (D-AR) was nearly a household name as Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He served in that position for 15 years, yet there was a feeling among his Arkansas constituents that he had become too ensconced in foreign affairs and had lost touch with home state issues. In 1974, the popular Governor Dale Bumpers, who sported a 91 percent job approval rating, defeated Fulbright in the Democratic Primary by over 30 percentage points. Bumpers won 71 out of the state's 75 counties.
Similarly, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) in her first and only term as Senator accepted a job as Chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, (RCCC) which required her to barnstorm the country campaigning for Republican Senate Candidates. This Chairmanship is often a stepping-stone to Party Leader in the Senate. However, Dole spent just 33 days in North Carolina in 2005 and 2006, and her opponent for re-election, State Senator Kay Hagan, made sure voters were cognizant of that fact. Consequently, Hagan defeated Dole.
Governors with national ambitions have also seen the deleterious effects with their home state constituents as they take on a National Role. Massachusetts Governors Michael Dukakis and Mitt Romney are perfect examples. Though Dukakis had been re-elected as Governor with 65.15 percent of the vote in 1986, he spent much of the next two years on the presidential campaign hustings. Unfortunately for Dukakis the Massachusetts economy tapered, and many residents thought Dukakis should have been more attentive to the state. Consequently, Dukakis, who lost the presidency in 1988, saw his poll numbers in Massachusetts plummet to just 19 percent.
Similarly, Mitt Romney, the once-potent electoral force, saw his poll numbers decline during his last two years in office, when, as Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Romney spent an inordinate amount of time out of the state campaigning for Republican Governors and Gubernatorial candidates. In fact, he spent 212 days out of the state in 2006. Romney even made fun of his job as a Republican Governor of a Democratic state saying his job is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention. Romney left office with an unimpressive job approval rating of just 39 percent.
The lesson of the Eric Cantor episode is that when politicians spend time raising their national profile, they should not take for granted their electoral subsistence. They must not allow their national profiles to trump the jobs they were elected to do.