Sunday, June 15, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

In a nation of some 241 million eligible voters, can a mere .00015% of that total – 36,000 people --   derail something that 78% of Republicans actually support in polls – immigration reform? 

If ignoring needs of constituents in pursuit of national
attention did in Eric Cantor, what fate awaits Paul Ryan?
Can they send the GOP majority in the House scurrying for the hills, also refusing to vote on other concerns dominating the public thinking – unemployment compensation for long-term job-seekers,  steps  on climate change,  universal background checks for gun owners, fixing the voter rights law, allowing students the same low-interest loans as banks  get?

It may just have happened. That is, if you believe the paroxysm of doomsday judgments by talking heads across the cable TV board after that June 10 primary in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.

The results there deserve to reverberate – the defeat despite a 20 to 1 spending advantage of House GOP majority leader Eric Cantor, regarded as the poster child of conservative insider politics and one of the “Young Guns” of the GOP future.

He was beaten by a Tea Party darling – even supporters didn’t expect the challenger to win -- basically on two issues: That Cantor had made a head fake toward a very limited Dream Act (most of America wants a better stab than his at legalizing children brought to this county by undocumented parents)  and that he (probably more true) was so busy hanging out with lobbyists and bigwig D.C. money that he ignored his own constituents. This in a Richmond district that had been gerrymandered 57% GOP basically to cater to his continued victory.

He lost to a door to door campaign focused on xenophobic anger -- described in the cable media as “populist anger” --  over any cooperation on establishment immigration reform, though most members of the national GOP want just that, step by step. Polling after the primary suggests that 70% of Brat voters didn’t put immigration as a primary issue but Cantor’s cooperation with Wall Street.  You wouldn’t know from the coverage.

David Brat, a professor of introductory economics,
needed only 36,000 primary votes to take out Eric Cantor.
It is hard to believe that anyone could paint themselves as further to the right than Cantor but among Tea Party faithful, David Brat did.  A longtime political wannabe and small college economics professor, Brat ran a focused campaign, though he has not yet painted a clear picture of how he would handle the office he’s seeking. But he pounded Cantor tirelessly on immigration reform as “amnesty,” as a crony capitalist to Wall Street and for neglecting his constituents in order to build up his power base to be the next Speaker of the House.

But can we also look at simple numbers? Brat won with 36,110 votes to Cantor’s feeble 28,898.  So the GOP in Congress out of fear will now let 36,110 primary voters control the nation’s fate and destroy the GOP as a national party as its white male base evaporates demographically. For the world’s most vaunted democracy, this is ridiculous.

In November of 2012, that Virginia district drew nearly 381,000 votes in the House race. A more accurate nonpresidential year comparison might be 2010, a big one for Republicans when that contest drew nearly 233,000 votes.  So the turnout for Brat was somewhere between 9% and 15% of the normal vote.

This is going to decide the nation’s fate? So cable news tells us.

Virginia actually has the option of picking a GOP candidate via selective conventions. But distaste for hometown boy Cantor favored an unusual summer primary where Cantor expected his superior name recognition and money to win. The results caught his pollsters flatfooted with higher than anticipated turnout from Tea Party sympathizers.   It was literally the most surprising loss of a big name in House politics in generations. So that warranted coverage.

But cable news then became silly. Noted pundit Jon Stewart devastatingly mocked them for suggesting this ended “the Golden Age of cooperation” between Democrats and Republicans. That is nailing the flat nonsense since cooperation has long been nonexistent.

Much airtime deathknell chat was translated on cable into the end of immigration reform, which only spurred Republicans in Congress to duck for cover. Sure, the media and politicos regarded Cantor as a GOP giant because of the money and airtime he commanded – and then exaggerated his importance or sincerity in immigration reform.  The result? A sliver of a sliver of the Tea Party engendered panic.

What the election should do in every state is reinforce the importance of retail politics and the fate awaiting representatives who take their eyes off intense feelings within their own communities. 

If anything, it ought to send a warning shot to any politician who seeks a national reputation at the expense of home cooking, who ignores the thinking within their community, relying on gerrymandering to protect them.  I recall a Republican political adviser warning elected officials recently at a private meeting about this danger.  “The problem with gerrymandering,” he said, “is you assume it makes you safe, but who lives in your district and how they think changes and you have to keep up.  Don’t presume people don’t move into your district or the people who are there don’t change their minds.”

Among those so vulnerable is a GOP Young Gun from Wisconsin, US Rep. Paul Ryan. He has been busy painting himself as the party’s economic guru, ignoring his own voters and actually dismaying much of the GOP with his ideas about decimating Social Security and adding to defense spending. His views actually don’t match his own Congressional District 1 – he couldn’t even carry the votes in his hometown of Janesville in 2012 and looks even more remote from constituents in 2014.  And this year he faces strong, personable and well funded Democratic opponents competing in an August primary.

Perhaps a motivated decimal point of the Richmond VA district may succumb to a professor of introductory economics who labels every immigration effort as “amnesty” despite the penalties attached and the rescue of the nation’s finances that would occur from giving immigrants without papers a path to residence and citizenship. 

But there is another unexplored side to Brat who is a committed Christian and conservative yet whose free market ideas are actually more in line with Occupy Wall Street than national Tea Party ideologies.  He has set himself in opposition to “Chamber of Commerce” Republicans who want immigration reform.  So far he has dodged details of his approach to foreign policy. He deliberately quotes such Constitution authors as James Madison over their fear of business collusion rather than their admiration of immigrants (“That part of America which had encouraged them most had advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture and the arts.”)  He even seems to believe that Christianity and taxation are incompatible.

It’s too early to count on Brat fumbling his limitations the way other Tea Party surprises have done to lose elections in the past, though apparently many liberals already have such hopes. He will be surrounded by seasoned advisers and comes in with the reputation of a charismatic professor. 

The Democrats picked a sociology professor
and author from the same college, Jack Trammel,
 to play underdog (as Brat did to defeat Cantor)
  and he is gaining Internet campaign money.
But ironically, his Democratic opponent is actually a more highly regarded professor at the same college, Jack Trammel, who unlike Brat has not fudged his resume.  (Brat’s literature claims he tested his mental prowess against the “intellectual elites” at Princeton without revealing this was Princeton Theological Seminary, a small but notable Calvinist center only geographically related to Princeton University. From the seminary, Brat holds masters of divinity and formed a belief that God guided his victory over Cantor.)

Trammel, who was belatedly chosen by the Democrats to run, likely thinking he would be a sacrificial lamb to Cantor, is a father of seven, author of 20 books, teacher of sociology, holder of a master’s degree, a local historian and columnist with his own economics credentials (“The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of The Old Dominion”).  

He is clearly the unknown underdog, but thinking does change. In Richmond, a number of Republicans don’t agree with Brat on many views, including how to tackle debt, or his defense of China as a model example of the free market system. So among the growing questions in the district is the political allegiance of the constituents and whether they are as motivated to vote as Brat’s small band of original supporters. Many residents may not be ready to jump over the wall to the Democratic side, but neither are they enamored of Brat’s philosophy.

Another change is the sudden growing fever for Trammel, which translates into campaign support.   Within 24 hours of the primary results, the online ActBlue reported over 1,000 donors to the Trammel cause giving $42,000.  And the numbers continue to grow.  

So despite cable news, things are afoot in Virginia and no one should, as Cantor did, assume results that might indeed change. 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, then for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic before rising to senior editor.  He created Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts.  In the 1990s he was tapped by the publishers of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special technology and information projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he was hired as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press, the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, and helped create its portal.  He won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He continues to review theater for urbanmilwaukee.

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