As late as the afternoon of Election Day, Eric Cantor’s top strategists felt assured that the House Majority Leader was coasting to victory. Turnout was strong across Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, which Cantor has represented for seven terms; his team regarded that as a positive sign. The worst-case scenario that Team Cantor envisioned, says one Republican close to the campaign, was that a narrower victory margin would impede the No. 2 House Republican’s path to the Speakership he has long coveted.
Instead, Cantor crashed out of Congress at the hands of an unknown economics professor named Dave Brat. Nobody in Washington saw the stunning defeat coming, least of all Cantor’s brain trust. But back in his district, in the suburbs of Richmond, there were troubling signs that the House Majority Leader ignored.
“This wasn’t a fluke that accidentally happened,” says Jamie Radtke, a former Virginia Senate candidate and co-founder of the Virginia Federation of Tea Party Patriots. “It was a methodical process that we’ve been building toward for the past five years.”
The story of Cantor’s loss is a tale of how his national ambitions, and his role as the No. 2 House Republican, took him away from a district that grew to resent him. And it is the story of how Cantor’s high-powered campaign team, which boasted the most sophisticated operation in the state, didn’t spot the red flags until it was too late—and then miscalculated when it came time to react.
Cantor’s defeat was not, as many observers have suggested, because of his cautious embrace of immigration reform. It wasn’t propelled by the national Tea Party groups who claimed the victory as their own; few of the outfits waging war on the Republican Establishment lifted a finger for Brat. And it had little to do with the division sowed within the Virginia GOP by Ken Cuccinelli’s failed gubernatorial campaign; Cantor gave more money to the Tea Party favorite than most.
“People want to talk about a national narrative,” says Chris La Civita, a veteran Republican who was Cuccinelli’s top strategist. “This has much more to do with a local one.”
As Cantor traveled the country, lavishing cash on GOP candidates and building his national profile for a future run at the speaker’s gavel, conservatives in his backyard grew to believe that he took their support for granted. Cantor has racked up huge margins in the solidly conservative district. But as the Tea Party gained steam, built a network of volunteers and ultimately grabbed control of much of the state GOP, its members were irked that Cantor had little inclination to solicit support from activists.
“People could not understand why he wouldn’t meet with people, why he wouldn’t hold town hall meetings,” says Radtke. “The feeling and the sentiment for years in the district was that he was way more concerned about Wall Street than the Seventh District. People were really fed up with the corporate cronyism.”
Brat capitalized on that perception by running on a message of economic populism. The professor, a polished and articulate speaker, painted the incumbent as insufficiently conservative, tapping a reservoir of grassroots frustration with the GOP’s national leadership. Brat, whose campaign did not respond to multiple inquiries from TIME, had little cash and fewer national connections. But he worked the district aggressively. Cantor didn’t.
“What Brat did right was he showed up. He created a David vs. Goliath narrative,” says a Republican consultant close to Cantor’s campaign. “Eric’s job required him to spend a lot of time on the road expanding the party’s majority, and therein lies the problem.”
Polling was scant in the sleepy primary, and Cantor’s team boasted that its internal surveys showed the Majority Leader coasting toward a cakewalk. But the warning signs were mounting. At a district convention in May, Linwood Cobb, a top Cantor lieutenant, was toppled in a race for the local GOP chairmanship by a Tea Party favorite. Cantor himself was booed.
The Majority Leader’s team recognized the lurking threat. It went nuclear on Brat, spattering the airwaves with negative advertising and blanketing the district with direct-mail pieces. But the onslaught may have backfired by raising awareness of the unknown upstart challenging a political giant whose base had soured on him.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul suggests Cantor went “too far negative.”
“It may well have increased the name identification of a lesser known candidate,” Paul said.
Radtke, who spent hours at the polls talking to conservative voters on Tuesday, says she heard the same refrain echoed over and over: “People said they’ve voted for Cantor every single time. But enough is enough. We’ve got to send Washington, D.C. a message.”
-with reporting by Zeke J Miller