In late March, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor brought up a bill that passed by voice vote. There's nothing particularly unusual about that. Except this time the Virginia Republican's move triggered a groundswell of conservative opposition - the very type of negative political passion that helped contribute to Cantor's stunning GOP primary defeat Tuesday.
The legislation patched the sustainable growth rate requirement in the Medicare program. There was a good policy reason for pushing the measure through. If not acted upon by the end of March, doctors in America faced a 24 percent cut in their Medicare payments. Under federal law, absent a "doc fix" by Congress, Medicare's payment formula calls for ever-increasing cuts.
The proposal had wide support among House Democrats, who saw it as crucial to implementing the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's signature domestic achievement. And the doc fix had been sought specifically by business groups, a key GOP constituency.
But to tea party groups and other Cantor foes, it enabled Obamacare - the worst type of Republican betrayal. It was just that type of maneuver that allowed Republican challenger David Brat - an otherwise little-known college economics professor - to brand Majority Leader Cantor an insider wheeler-dealer bailing out his crony contributors.
Of course it's difficult to draw a direct connection between one piece of obscure parliamentary procedure by Cantor and his epic Republican primary loss. So many mistakes were made along the way. Still, it's worth noting that the negative reaction of true-believing conservative House Republicans presaged the rejection of Cantor by Republican primary voters in his Richmond-based Virginia district.
Shortly after the surprise voice vote, a group of the most conservative House Republicans held a meeting over what they deemed a "sneaky" decision by GOP leadership to push through the Obamacare-fixing bill.
"I'm getting used to being deceived by the Obama administration, but when my own leadership does it, it's just not acceptable," Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona said following the RSC meeting, as reported by National Journal's Tim Alberta at the time.
"This alleged trickery was the focus of passionate speeches from [South Carolina Congressman Mick] Mulvaney, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, and Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, according to people in attendance. These conservatives, and more, used the occasion to 'speak their mind to Leader Cantor,' said a smiling Rep. Randy Weber of Texas."
How Not To Run a Negative Campaign
Cantor's defeat offers another lesson - how not to run a negative campaign. In trying to stave off Brat's challenge from the right, Cantor's campaign threw out a bunch of ludicrous charges that only backfired.
Rare Editor Jeremy Lott - one of the few political analysts to detect the majority's leader's electoral troubles in advance - wrote before the votes were counted about desperate tactics by Cantor's minions that were likely to backfire.
"Cantor and allies have run anti-Brat television ads, sent out fliers, blanketed the radio waves. The Cantorites have called the tea party-favored Brat a 'liberal college professor' and accused him, falsely, of backing amnesty for illegal immigrants. (Which, given Cantor's slipperiness on the subject, takes chutzpah.)"
That broke a cardinal rule of negative campaigning - make your charges credible. One of Brat's main issues was opposing the type of immigration reform sought by House Democrats.
Majority Leader Cantor and challenger Brat were vying for a small group of primary voters. Brat won by scoring all of 36,110 votes, to Cantor's 28,898. Those likely to participate in the early summer contest were already Brat true-believers. Or more accurately, Cantor-haters.
And a simple look at Brat's Randolph-Macon College course curriculum dispels the notion of a liberal college professor. The academic-sounding description of one Brat-taught class hints at his free market principles. The class, "Public Finance" covers "a study of the economic behavior of the public sector with reference to taxing, spending, borrowing, and managing the public debt. Students are expected to be able to analyze the effects of government taxes and expenditures on resource allocation, stabilization, and distribution."
between Cantor's adman who depicted Brat as "liberal," and Cantor's pollster who had him up 34 pts....heckuva job!- Eric Boehlert (@EricBoehlert) June 11, 2014
Politix Editor-in-Chief David Mark is author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning. His new book, with Chuck McCutcheon, Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Slang, Jargon and Bluster of American Political Speech, will be released on Sept. 2, 2014.