By: David Donnelly, Executive Director and Adam Smith, Communications Director
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s historic loss to challenger Dave Brat yesterday underscored just how angry voters are with Washington politicians who are out of touch with their concerns. Everyone's talking about immigration's role in Cantor's loss, but as Brat repeatedly spoke out against DC’s corruption, the race can also be seen as deep critique of how the current campaign finance system is part and parcel of Congress being out of touch.
When a candidate spends more paying for fundraisers at steakhouses than his opponent spends for their entire campaign, and when you spend the day of your primary fundraising in Washington instead of meeting voters at the polls, that's the definition of being “out of touch.”
That no one saw this coming is also an indictment of how much pundits and politicians in Washington have accepted a campaign finance system that 99 times out of 100 rewards exactly the kind of fundraising Eric Cantor excels at. But his ability to be in touch with constituents’ concerns back home is inversely proportionate to the amount of time he spent raising money from Wall Street CEOs, bankers, and lobbyists.
Dave Brat knew this. He consistently excoriated Cantor and the Washington pay-to-play system during his campaign, from the launch of his campaign – “These days everything is for sale in D.C.” – to the victory speech last night - "what you proved tonight was dollars don't vote—you do.”
- He also campaigned against the influence of money and Cantor’s poor record dealing with the conflicts of interest in Washington. When speaking to the Mechanicsville Tea Party in May, Brat said (7:08 in):
“All the investment banks up in New York or DC or whatever, those guys should have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, where’d they go? They went on to Eric’s Rolodex, right? And that’s where they all are, and they’re sending him big checks. … We’re going to have to overcome that, and we can overcome that with people… Money doesn’t vote. People do.”
- He sharply criticized Cantor for his role in watering down the STOCK Act which would prevent insider trading by members of Congress, writing in a June 6th opinion piece, “In my view, the greatest moral failure — which disqualifies Cantor for high public office — was his abuse of the public trust concerning the Stock Act, a bipartisan bill that was going through after the financial crisis.”
- Even Brat’s criticism of Cantor’s immigration position boiled down to whom the Majority Leader represented. In the same opinion piece, Brat writes, “Eric Cantor doesn’t represent you, he represents large corporations seeking a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor.” (emphasis added)
The other lesson from last night is that having a huge campaign fundraising advantage doesn’t mean a candidate will win. Cantor outspent Brat by roughly 25 to one. But Brat had enough money to campaign – roughly $200,000 – to communicate with voters. Clearly, Brat tapped into a discontent that Cantor’s spending couldn’t alter. In today’s big money system, as long as you have some money to make your voice heard, organized people can still beat organized money.
We’re about to learn a lot more about David Brat, and to be sure, many of his views will be out of the mainstream, but one thing that’s clear from last night is running against corruption is good politics. Other candidates of all parties should take notice and, in addition, push for solutions to reduce this corruption and empower everyday people in politics.