The stunning primary defeat of Eric Cantor was, by any metaphoric measure, an enormous event: an earthquake, a volcanic explosion, a political tsunami.
But, at bottom, it also underscored some of the essential truths of politics, none more so than that old chestnut — oft-quoted and ascribed to the late ex-House Speaker Tip O’Neill — that all politics is local.
And, it might be added as a corollary, woe to the politician — whatever the office or his or her presumed import — who takes reelection, and, by extension, the people he or she represents, for granted.
Rep. Cantor of Virginia was the No. 2 Republican in the House leadership and, both logically and politically, the heir to House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio. There was even talk of Cantor someday running for president and, if his dreams were realized, becoming the first Jewish president in U.S. history.
However, that leadership position and Cantor’s unrequited ambition meant a great deal of time and travel away from his district, which left him ripe for attack by his underfunded, little-regarded challenger, college professor Dave Brat.
That argument — that a lawmaker has lost touch with the folks back home — is another old political standby; it produced a similarly historic upset in 1994
by Republican George Nethercutt, who ousted then-House Speaker Tom Foley in the national GOP wave.
“We need a listener,” Nethercutt repeatedly told voters, “not a speaker.”
Cantor had the burden, as do all congressional leaders, of serving dual masters, his constituents and the national needs of his party. Those are increasingly diverging in a GOP split between what might be called, for simplicity's sake, the pragmatists and the purists.
The pragmatists believe that compromise is a necessary part of the political process. The purists, the animating force of the tea party movement, would rather lose elections than surrender what they believe to be fundamental conservative principles.
Perhaps the most important flashpoint has been over the issue of immigration. Many Republicans believe the party must join Democrats, for survival's sake, to pass some form of legalization for the millions in the country without legal documentation. Others call that amnesty, the battle cry that Brat used in the race against Cantor, who supported some easing of immigration law.
Too late did Cantor realize the strength of Brat and, more broadly, voters' disdain for the type of give-and-take required of someone in Cantor’s position. A last-minute blast of ads that underscored his concern went nowhere.
“This is the grass roots flexing its muscle and reminding members of the Republican leadership — and reminding all Republicans — that this is a very conservative party at the grass roots and they’re angry,” said Stuart Rothenberg, who analyzes campaigns nationwide for his nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
“And they care more about their anger and expressing their anger and electing someone who will express their anger than they care about electing someone who gets the best deal in negotiations with the White House or the Senate.”
The ouster of Cantor was widely seen as a victory for the tea party, and it most assuredly was.
But also on Tuesday night, two-term Sen. Lindsey Graham easily romped past six primary opponents in South Carolina, a pugnaciously conservative state that had been a hotbed of tea party support. Indeed, Graham was once seen as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents facing a primary challenge this year.
He bent some, but not much, in the direction of his party’s purists. Mostly, though, Graham sneered at his tea party challengers and said he wanted not just to win, but to pound his opponents into South Carolina’s dirt, to show there was still a place for compromise inside the GOP.
The key difference was that Graham knew he had a challenge and responded forcefully, raising a small fortune by South Carolina standards, starting his campaign early and stumping tirelessly.
Two states, two vastly disparate outcomes and one fundamental truth, which illustrates why Tip O’Neill, dead for 20 years, is gone but not politically forgotten.