On May 30, 11 days before one of the biggest upsets in modern American politics blocked Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s path to speaker of the House, one of his top aides emailed me in an unusually defensive tone. Doug Heye, Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, had a “quibble” with an analysis I had written for the Cook Political Report on the state of play in the GOP primary for Cantor’s congressional district.
In my analysis I wrote, “Economics professor [and Cantor’s primary opponent] Dave Brat has forced Majority Leader Eric Cantor to take his primary very seriously.” Nonetheless, relying on what turned out to be flawed private polling, I had also noted that Cantor wasn’t anywhere “near the danger zone.”
Still, Heye emailed to say, “Saw your ratings. One quibble — Brat has not forced Cantor to take the primary seriously. He takes every election seriously and, in fact, began advertising last cycle even earlier. Eric Cantor is simply incapable of phoning anything in.”
I predict House races 365 days a year for a living, so defensive emails from campaigns like this one aren’t out of place. On election night, when it was clear from the first few precincts that David had slayed Goliath, I was just as shell-shocked and knew immediately that the results would force me to rethink my entire approach to handicapping primaries. But I couldn’t help but think of Heye’s email with amusement.
Perhaps Heye was correct that Cantor took “every election seriously.” By the time the primary rolled around, Cantor had been running ads attacking Brat for more than a month. In fact, the biggest myth on Twitter on election night may have been that Cantor was “blindsided.”
But Cantor’s downfall proves taking “every election seriously” isn’t the same thing as being “incapable of phoning anything in.” For Cantor and his advisers, taking the election “seriously” meant brutally defining Brat (through lots of television ads) before the “liberal college professor” could ever hope to define himself. To suburban Richmond primary voters, who were well aware of their congressman’s Capitol ambitions, that strategy may have looked like he was phoning it in.
In truth, when an election result hits “10 on the political Richter scale” of shock value, there usually isn’t just one reason for the outcome, but lots of them acting in concert. While surveying the wreckage, Cantor adviser John Murray acknowledged his boss’s loss amounted to “death by a thousand cuts.” None of these reasons alone would be sufficient to cause an upset, and some of them aren’t neatly quantifiable. But there are plenty of ways to dissect what happened in Virginia’s 7th district, as well as some lessons we political forecasters would be wise to keep in mind in the future. Here are just a few.
1) Public disgust with Congress was a necessary prerequisite for Cantor’s defeat.
Public disapproval of Congress as a whole has achieved such heights that it almost can’t get any higher. But Gallup has asked two incredibly useful questions of voters since 1992: whether they would vote to re-elect their own member of Congress, and whether most members of Congress deserve re-election.
It’s not surprising that voters have always liked their own member of Congress better than Congress as a whole. But what’s most striking are voters’ shift in attitudes since 2012 on the question of their own member: In 2012, more than half of voters said they would still vote to re-elect their own member of Congress, but by January of this year that share fell to 46 percent.
Since primary season began in March, that decline has manifested itself quietly, but powerfully.
Cantor was only the second House incumbent to lose a primary this year (the first was Texas Republican Ralph Hall), but the warning signs of discontent were abundant: Plenty of rank-and-file House incumbents had been receiving startlingly low primary vote shares against weak and under-funded opponents, including GOP Reps. Rodney Davis of Illinois, Lee Terry of Nebraska and David Joyce of Ohio. In fact, just a week before Cantor’s defeat and without much fanfare, socially moderate Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey received just 54 percent of the Republican primary vote against the same tea party-backed opponent he had taken 61 percent against in 2012.
Overall, 32 House incumbents have taken less than 75 percent of the vote in their primaries so far this year, up from 31 at this point in 2010 and just 12 at this point in 2006. What’s more, 27 of these 32 “underperforming” incumbents have been Republicans.1
In other words, while Congress’s unpopularity alone can’t sink any given member in a primary, it has established a higher baseline of distrust that challengers can build on when incumbents are otherwise vulnerable. And as the sitting House Majority Leader, Cantor was uniquely susceptible to voters’ frustration with Congress as an institution.
2) Cantor’s home base wasn’t ever as comfortable with him as most people thought.
One rule of politics is that voters generally like to vote for candidates who can relate to them. Whether it’s a matter of race, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle or simply shared life experiences, identity politics can be extremely potent. To his credit, Cantor never pretended to be someone he wasn’t, but in many ways he was culturally dissimilar from his own primary base.
Although Cantor’s district is a diverse mix of wealthy Richmond suburbs and rural, gun-owning counties, it’s safe to say the average GOP voter in the district is a church-going suburbanite more likely to, say, dine at Cracker Barrel than shop at Whole Foods. Cantor’s persona drifted from this reality over the course of his tenure: He is suave, polished, and came to be known for raising lots of money at upscale D.C. steakhouses and in New York City.
Cantor is also the only Republican in the House who attends synagogue, not church. After his loss, I made an assertion in a New York Times article that part of this cultural disconnect “plays into his religion,” which ignited a small social media firestorm. To clarify, by no means was I alleging that the district’s primary electorate is the least bit anti-Semitic.
However, in countless southern primaries, Christian GOP candidates have emphasized their religious values and used evangelical language and imagery to establish a connection and comfort level with primary voters. This is something Cantor could never do, and he tended to emphasize his family over his faith. His opponent, Brat, however, earned a business degree from Hope College (a small Christian school in Michigan) and a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and referred to his victory as a “miracle,” adding, “God gave us this win.”
Dozens of people on Twitter have countered this idea with some variation of this question: If Cantor’s cultural dissimilarity was to blame, how did he keep winning for 14 years? The answer is that he was never really challenged. In 2000, Cantor’s last competitive race, he won by just 263 votes in the primary over state Sen. Stephen Martin, a social conservative who only raised about a quarter of the money Cantor spent but had strong support from evangelicals. And that was before Cantor was saddled with the epithet of “Washington insider.”
Then, in the Republican landslide of November 2010, another warning sign went largely unnoticed: While most other House Republicans in similarly safe seats were winning re-election in excess of 70 percent of the vote, Cantor took only 59 percent, with an “Independent Green” candidate, Floyd Bayne, taking 7 percent. Bayne spent almost nothing but ran strongest in the portions of the district that were most heavily Christian conservative.
3) Cantor realized he’d have to work with Democrats to actually govern, and his new tone didn’t hold up back home.
Over the last few years, it became more apparent to Cantor that if he became speaker of the House he’d need to work with Democrats to govern, while also presiding over a seemingly ungovernable GOP. He slowly evolved from Speaker John Boehner’s top rival into a more conciliatory conservative, willing to make deals, for example, on the debt ceiling. He also began devoting more time and energy to articulating conservative policy alternatives than most of his peers in the Republican conference.
Cantor privately chastised tea partiers in his conference who fomented the 2013 government shutdown, came out in favor of restoring parts of the Voting Rights Act, and helped craft a watered-down DREAM Act that would provide a path to legalization for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. But he seemed to do so with fairly little regard to how rock-ribbed conservative primary voters back home would react to these pragmatic gestures.
A few weeks before the primary, Cantor’s campaign sent out a mailer billing him as a hero in the fight against “amnesty” for “illegal aliens.” The only problem? The average GOP voter in his district who shows up in a June primary is relatively well informed, which means she would have known that Cantor supported some immigration reforms. Most voters could sniff out the hyperbole, viewing Cantor’s over-the-top language as desperation.
4) Sometimes it pays to “kneecap” an unknown opponent, and sometimes it backfires.
In the early spring, Cantor’s campaign faced a tactical fork in the road: Would it simply stay positive, emphasizing Cantor’s conservatism while ignoring the unknown and underfunded college professor running to his right? Or would it cut out Brat’s legs early (much as President Obama did to Mitt Romney in 2012) by defining him negatively in an attempt to stop him from gaining any traction whatsoever?
In hindsight, it’s easy to say Cantor’s decision to wallop Brat on the airwaves was an epic blunder. But considering today’s high antipathy toward Congress, this fork in the road presents a difficult dilemma for many incumbents. And several, such as GOP Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, have gone negative effectively and won. The difference? Simpson and Shuster mostly had effective and substantive lines of attack against their opponents. Cantor did not.
Cantor’s decision to attack Brat as a “liberal college professor” and ally of Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine was immediately called out by FactCheck.org as inaccurate, and most voters with access to Google could have found out in seconds that Brat wasn’t the least bit liberal and hadn’t advised Kaine. The ad barrage not only generated curiosity about Brat, it may have created sympathy for him.
5) Voters still need some tender loving care, no matter how high-ranking their representatives in D.C. are.
For most longtime House incumbents, the task of winning a primary is roughly equivalent to an NBA player following through on a layup. It’s an easy shot, but requires a soft touch. Voters don’t like to be taken for granted, and they need a little attention every now and then to know that their leaders, however powerful or high on the congressional leadership ladder, still “care about them.” By nearly all accounts, Cantor blew the layup.
Contrast Cantor’s efforts with John Boehner’s. The Ohio Republican’s primary campaign was against a tea party challenger, Christian college employee J.D. Winteregg. Winteregg had little money, but ran a memorable low-budget ad playing on Boehner’s last name, entitled “Electile Dysfunction.” Rather than engage Winteregg, Boehner ran simple positive ads, spoke at a local chamber of commerce, and shook hands at diners.
Cantor might have been better off following Boehner’s example and adopting a more suitable “home style,” as Sean Trende has alluded. A seemingly silly blog item on Boehner’s campaign website pictured Boehner at a local diner and said, “When John Boehner finds a diner he likes, he sticks with it. That’s why John made sure to stop by Eaton Place this morning before meetings with constituents and small businesses.” This kind of kitsch seems innocuous, but it’s satisfying comfort food for voters.
6) When polling is sparse, one bad poll can poorly set conventional wisdom.
At 7:30 p.m. on June 10, when it was clear to the small group of Twitter nerds who intimately study Virginia precinct-level voting behavior (myself included) that Cantor was going down, not a single cable TV network was prepared for the possibility he could lose. The conventional wisdom pointing to Cantor’s safety was largely generated by one poll taken for the majority leader’s campaign by pollster John McLaughlin in late May showing Cantor leading Brat 62 percent to 28 percent.
Those of us who have tracked McLaughlin’s results in House races have come to digest his data with several grains of salt. But could a pollster really be 45 points off the mark two weeks out? It strains credulity. Brat clearly owned momentum over the last fortnight, but most GOP operatives now blame McLaughlin’s poor sampling for his misleading numbers. Nonetheless, the poll had the effect of “waving off” both Cantor allies and the press from the race.
McLaughlin’s subsequent assertion that Democratic voters skewed the race by crossing over to vote for Brat in Virginia’s open primary was just as farfetched as his polling. Were there some Democrats who crossed over for Brat to “stick it” to Cantor? Absolutely. But a close look at precinct-level results offers little evidence that Democrats participated at anywhere near high enough levels to affect the outcome.
Nate Cohn’s extensive analysis of the primary at The Upshot meshes with these findings and makes clear that Brat owes his strongest performances to Republican voters living in deeply conservative precincts, not Democrats such as former Dukes of Hazzard star Ben “Cooter” Jones, who urged voters on the left to play the role of spoiler. In the 58 district precincts President Obama carried in 2012, turnout in the 2014 GOP primary was up 42.7 percent over 2012. Brat took 58.1 percent of the vote in these precincts. But turnout jumped by roughly the same amount(42.8 percent) in the 37 precincts where Obama received between 30 and 35 percent of the vote. And Brat got a higher share of the vote (59.4 percent) with a much larger raw vote margin in the 33 precincts where Obama took less than 30 percent.
The lesson I and others will take away: Don’t jump to easy conclusions in volatile primary situations where good polling is in short supply.
7) The primary played out on media ignored by most Beltway pundits.
Today’s polarized media environment heightens the odds that a candidate earning buzz within his own ideological echo chamber can fly under the radar of most Beltway pundits. I learned this lesson the hard way in Cantor’s race.
When I’m looking for trustworthy news on local Virginia politics, I’ve typically turned to the Washington Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a handful of blogs I consider to be down the middle. But what if the voters who actually show up for a partisan primary are consumers within an entirely different media ecosystem? When conservative media personality Laura Ingraham showed up at a 500-person Richmond rally for Brat the week before the election, the cash-strapped crop of traditional local outlets didn’t cover it. But Breitbart.com sent reporter Michael Patrick Leahy to the scene, and ran an extensive article with the provocative headline “Laura Ingraham: We Should Have Traded Cantor for Bergdahl.”
Breitbart.com and conservative radio host Mark Levin rallied to Brat’s cause at the eleventh hour, but most Beltway pundits don’t voraciously read or consume partisan media because, well, it’s just that. However, as more American elections are decided in the primary instead of the general election, the importance of watching, listening to or reading both conservative and liberal outlets for clues will continue to rise, no matter the outlet’s editorial integrity.
Bonus takeaway: Cantor’s loss proves there are limits to strictly data-driven election predictions.
Effective election forecasting is necessarily a mix of art and science. In the case of Cantor’s district, there weren’t traditional quantifiable metrics or shortcuts (fundraising reports, polls or ad dollars spent) that would have suggested a Brat victory. To truly grasp how Republicans were shifting on Cantor, an observer would have needed to see firsthand what was happening on the ground, which is exactly what Washington Post reporters Jenna Portnoy and Robert Costa did so well in early May.
Although I and almost everyone else failed to predict it, the Cantor earthquake does offer important reassurances. First, great shoe-leather reporting and sound polling analysis aren’t rivals; they must go hand in hand. In this case, Portnoy and Costa’s dispatches helped paint a more complete portrait of the race than the top-line numbers of any one poll. Second, voters are smarter and more discerning than we often give them credit for, and aren’t always swayed by one candidate who vastly outspends another.
Finally, the next time a high-ranking aide tells me that his boss is “simply incapable of phoning anything in,” I’ll know an exciting upset could be lurking around the corner.
Every year, Republican members of the House of Representatives retreat from Washington to assess their political fortunes. This year, they gathered in mid-January, at the Kingsmill Resort, in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was too cold to play golf on the resort’s renowned course, and at nearby Colonial Williamsburg, with a steady rain falling, there wasn’t a costumed Thomas Jefferson or Benedict Arnold in sight. Aside from the bar and the spa, there was no escaping the ballrooms, where, for three days, some two hundred Republicans pondered the state of their party.
Two months earlier, Republicans had lost the Presidential election and eight seats in the House. They were immediately plunged into a messy budget fight with a newly emboldened President, which ended with an income-tax increase, the first in more than twenty years. A poll in January deemed Congress less popular than cockroaches, head lice, and colonoscopies (although it did beat out the Kardashians, North Korea, and the Ebola virus). It was time to regroup.
The event at Kingsmill was not so much a retreat as an intervention. On the eve of the getaway, Tom Cole, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, told me that factional disputes over taxes and spending had created a dire situation. “It’s a very important time for the conference, and it needs to air some of these things,” he said. “It’s a little like a dysfunctional family right now, where everybody knows old Uncle Joe at the end of the table’s an alcoholic, but nobody wants to say it. And somebody needs to say it. We need to get Joe some help. Come on, he’s ruined too many Christmas parties!”
Over three days, the Republicans heard from political strategists, pollsters, conservative intellectuals, C.E.O.s, and motivational speakers. A dinnertime address by Erik Weihenmayer, a blind mountaineer who scaled Everest, was called “Using Adversity to Our Advantage by Working Together.” Panel discussions had existential titles such as “What Happened and Where Are We Now?” Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for National Review, was asked to explain why the Republicans’ economic agenda had failed. “I said to them, ‘Don’t kid yourself that this was a close election; face the facts that this is in a lot of ways a very weak party,’ ” Ponnuru told me. He argued that too many voters believe that the Party’s economic agenda helps nobody except rich people and big business.
On the second day, after a 7 A.M. choice of Catholic Mass or Bible study, the political analyst Charlie Cook gave a sober presentation about current demographic trends, demonstrating that the Party was doomed unless it started winning over Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and younger voters. He also noted that forty per cent of the electorate is moderate—and Republicans lost that constituency by fifteen points in 2012. Thanks to congressional redistricting, Republicans were able to hold on to the House of Representatives, and Cook said that the Party could probably keep it for the foreseeable future, but he warned that the prospects of winning back the Senate, and the White House, would require dramatic change. There are only twenty Republican women in the House, and Kellyanne Conway, a G.O.P. pollster, gave the overwhelmingly white male audience some advice: stop talking about rape.
In the next few years, a new field of Republican Presidential candidates will emerge to sort out some of these issues. Until then, House Republicans, who have moved sharply to the right since January, 2011, are the face of their party. They will also determine the destiny of President Obama’s second term, which features an ambitious agenda including taxes, immigration, and gun control. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, has often shown a willingness to compromise, but for more than two years he has been stymied by a small and unruly group of right-wingers, led by his deputy, Eric Cantor.
Cantor is the House Majority Leader, which means that he is responsible for the mundane business of managing the schedule, the House floor, and committees, where legislation is generally written. He has used his position to transform himself into the Party’s chief political strategist. Cantor is frequently talked about as a future Speaker; he could even be a future President, some of his aides say. Since the election, as Republicans have confronted Obama in a series of budgetary battles—another will unfold this week—few have tried as hard as Cantor to reposition and redefine the defeated party.
“He’s a fantastic Majority Leader,” Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a close friend, said. “Eric keeps the trains running on time very efficiently.” As Mitt Romney’s former running mate and the architect of the budget policies that some Republicans blame for their loss in 2012, Ryan is well aware of his party’s problems. “What Eric is really focussed on is that we need to do a better job of broadening our appeal and showing that we have real ideas and solutions that make people’s lives better,” Ryan said. “Eric is the guy who studies the big vision and is doing the step-by-step, daily management of the process to get us there. That is a huge job.”
Late in the afternoon on the second day of the retreat, Cantor and his wife, Diana, who happens to be a liberal Democrat, met me for coffee at the Trellis restaurant, in Williamsburg. Cantor, who is forty-nine, is slight and speaks in a nasal Southern drawl. When cameras are around, he has a tendency to look frozen, as if he’d just been caught doing something wrong; his smile can look like a snarl. He’s more genial in person.
Born in Richmond, Cantor, who is Jewish, first entered office in 1992, as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. In 2001, he became a member of the U.S. House. In 2011, when Republicans gained control of the House, Cantor became the Majority Leader, and the highest elected Jewish official in America. Along the way, he has become one of the top fund-raisers in the House. For the past two years, he has anchored the Tea Party, as the leader of House conservatives and the creator of a strategy to oppose and obstruct the Obama agenda.
Cantor was one of the most influential political forces in Obama’s first term. In June of 2011, the President and the Speaker began working toward a Grand Bargain of major tax increases and spending cuts to address the government’s long-term budget deficits. Until late June, Boehner had managed to keep these talks secret from Cantor. On July 21st, Boehner paused in his discussions with Obama to talk to Cantor and outline the proposed deal. As Obama waited by the phone for a response from the Speaker, Cantor struck. Cantor told me that it was a “fair assessment” that he talked Boehner out of accepting Obama’s deal. He said he told Boehner that it would be better, instead, to take the issues of taxes and spending to the voters and “have it out” with the Democrats in the election. Why give Obama an enormous political victory, and potentially help him win reëlection, when they might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal with a new Republican President? Boehner told Obama there was no deal. Instead of a Grand Bargain, Cantor and the House Republicans made a grand bet.
The bet failed spectacularly. Just as Cantor had urged, Obama and Romney spent much of the campaign debating tax and spending policies that the House Republicans had foisted on the Romney-Ryan ticket. What’s more, by scuttling the 2011 Grand Bargain negotiations, Cantor, more than any other politician, helped create the series of fiscal crises that have gripped Washington since Election Day. The failure of the Grand Bargain led to a byzantine deal: if the two parties could not agree on a new deficit plan, then a combination of tax increases and spending cuts—cuts known, in budget jargon, as a “sequester”—would automatically kick in on New Year’s Day. (The sequester was postponed until March 1st.) Looming beyond this “fiscal cliff” was an even more perilous fight, over the expiration of the debt ceiling, which is the limit on how much money the government can borrow, and which Congress must regularly raise if the Treasury is to pay its bills.
At the January retreat, a halfway point in the midst of these budget battles, Cantor sounded chastened, or, at least, like a man wanting to appear chastened. “We’ve got to understand that people don’t think Republicans have their back,” he said. “Whether it’s the middle class, whether it’s the Latino or the Asian vote.” It was not “necessarily our policies” but, rather, how “we’ve been portrayed.” He added, “It goes to that axiom about how people don’t really care how much you know until they know you care. So we’ve got to take that to heart and, I think, look to be able to communicate why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Cantor had been struck by one presentation at the retreat. Patrick Doyle, the president and C.E.O. of Domino’s, had given a talk called “Turning It Around,” in which he explained that he revived the failing company after conducting extensive research that led him to conclude that Domino’s pizza was terrible. But Cantor seemed more interested in Doyle’s sales advice than in his point about his product.
“There was a discussion about features and benefits,” he said. “Marketing 101, right? If you’re selling detergent and you put a new blue dot in a detergent block, that’s a feature. But the benefit is it gets your clothes cleaned.” He paused to let the lesson sink in.
“Well, we have features that we’re for, whether it’s balanced budgets, whether it’s fiscal prudence or reforming entitlements,” he said. “Those are features—those aren’t ends in themselves. But they’re going to produce a stronger America. They’re going to save the safety-net programs for those who need them. We have to apply our principles in a way that translates to understanding that we actually are focussing and trying to help people and meet the needs that they have.”
Since the 2012 elections, the Republicans have been divided between those who believe their policies are the problem and those who believe they just need better marketing—between those who believe they need to make better pizza and those who think they just need a more attractive box. Cantor, who is known among his colleagues as someone with strategic intelligence and a knack for political positioning, argues that it’s the box.
As he gamed out G.O.P. strategy for the budgetary showdowns with Obama in January and February—including this week’s clash over the sequester—Cantor was happy to make himself available for several long interviews. He persistently struck a diplomatic note and mentioned again and again how much he looked forward to working with Obama, a position that he said he’s been articulating for a long time.
“Why isn’t that your reputation, then?” I asked.
“I have to ask you that. Maybe you can make it so!”
When a party’s base of power is centered in the House, the most populist and polarized institution in Washington, it often has trouble corralling its most obstreperous partisans. The lower chamber of Congress has frequently served as a foil for Presidential candidates trying to distance themselves from the more radical elements in their party. In 1999, George W. Bush criticized members of the House for “balancing their budget on the backs of the poor.” But the problem is trickier when you are the House Majority Leader.
There are several ways to think of the divide in the Republican conference. One is regional. The House has two hundred and thirty-two Republican members; nearly half of them—a hundred and ten—are from the South. The rest are scattered across the Midwest (fifty-eight), the mid-Atlantic (twenty-five), the mountain West (eighteen), and the Pacific (twenty-one). There are no House Republicans from New England. Nan Hayworth, a Tea Party representative from upstate New York who lost to a Democrat in November, told me about a Southern Republican who once tried to win her support for a colleague on some internal conference position. “He’s a good Christian man,” the congressman told her, assuming that was the first thing she needed to know. She responded, “Well, I’m married to a good Jewish man.”
Tom Price, an orthopedic surgeon from Georgia, who holds Newt Gingrich’s old congressional seat and is seen as a leader of the most conservative House Republicans, said that, during a recent debate over taxes, “we talked past each other oftentimes as much as Republicans and Democrats talk past each other.” He explained how surprised he was when one of his colleagues from a Northern state told him that he favored a tax increase on millionaires. “It hit me that what he was hearing when he’s going home to a Republican district in a blue state is completely different than what I’m hearing when I go home to a Republican district in a red state,” he said. “My folks are livid about this stuff. His folks clearly weren’t. And so we weren’t even starting from the same premise.”
The other divide in the House is generational. If Democrats vote as a bloc, which they often do, it takes only sixteen dissenting Republicans for the leadership to lose a vote. There is a rump group of some forty or fifty restless Republicans. At its core are two dozen younger members, most of whom have been elected since 2010 and have what generously might be called a dismissive attitude toward their leaders, whom they see as holdovers from the big-spending era of George W. Bush.
Raúl Labrador, who is forty-five, is a cheerful libertarian and the unofficial leader of the rump. Born in Puerto Rico, he moved with his family to Las Vegas when he was thirteen. His mother thought that he was hanging around with the wrong crowd, so she sent him to a Mormon youth program, and eventually they both became devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He later moved to Boise, Idaho, where his wife, whom he met at Brigham Young University, was born. In the 2010 election, he beat a conservative Democrat, and now represents one of Idaho’s two congressional districts.
Older House members “were so excited when this class came in,” Labrador told me in his office recently. “But they just wanted us to sit in the corner and be quiet. They want our numbers, but they don’t want our input, and they don’t want our opinions. They spent two years working really hard to make sure that we were co-opted—that we were just another member of Congress who did as we were told. But it’s because of this class that we have a majority.” He said that, if it weren’t for the class of 2010, “these guys wouldn’t have any chairmanships. They wouldn’t have the leadership positions.”
Tom Cole, of Oklahoma, who is sixty-three and has served for a decade in the House, recently emerged as the leader of a large faction of House Republicans who believe that the Tea Party-inspired congressmen are dooming the Party. A member of the Chickasaw Nation, Cole started in politics in 1979, when he was thirty, as a strategist and a consultant. He served in top staff positions in the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is in charge of electing Republicans to the House. He has a lifetime rating of ninety-two per cent from the American Conservative Union.
Cole is no fan of Obama. “The President is so self-righteous and so smug,” he told me. But Cole is one of the few House Republicans who have worked closely with the White House. On one of his walls, which is decorated with Native American artifacts, were framed copies of two laws that Obama signed regarding tribal issues. “He’s the best President in modern American history on Native American issues,” Cole said.
He seemed far more frustrated with the extremists in his own party. “This is a very different Republican Party than the one I got elected into,” he said. “It’s much more domestically focussed, much more fiscally responsible, much less concerned about America’s position in the world or about defending the country. It almost takes for granted the security that we have now. It’s not a group shaped by 9/11. Their 9/11 is the fiscal crisis, the long-term deficit.” In fact, the overwhelming majority of House Republicans—a hundred and fifty-eight out of two hundred and thirty-two—have arrived in Washington since the 2006 election, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had become increasingly unpopular. A hundred and sixteen, exactly half, came after the 2010 election, and the fallout from the economic crisis has been the major issue.
“But this is also a much braver conference politically,” Cole went on. “It will do things that it knows are politically not in its interest.” He pointed out that House Republicans have twice passed Ryan’s budget, which included controversial changes in Medicare and deep cuts in Medicaid; it included large tax cuts, too, which meant that the plan wouldn’t bring down federal deficits for several decades. But Cole also said that his colleagues had some serious blind spots. “If this were football, some of these guys would know only one play, and that’s to throw deep every time,” he said. “They don’t understand winning incrementally or winning first downs. I admire the zeal, because we have to have that, but it needs to be tempered with a little bit of experience.”
Cantor’s reputation as a Tea Party leader is a recent development. In his office, he keeps a photograph of a bow-tied Thomas Bliley, the former mayor of Richmond, who represented Cantor’s suburban district for two decades, until Cantor succeeded him. Bliley, who is Catholic, and who started out as a Democrat, is now a lobbyist. “He’s a real Virginia gentleman,” Cantor, who worked as Bliley’s driver when he was a student at George Washington University, said. “He really was seen as a uniter.” As Bliley created a base in the quickly suburbanizing areas around Richmond, Cantor’s parents held meetings in their home to help build up the local Republican Party. In Virginia politics, the Bliley machine is known for its pro-business views, not for its Tea Party adherents. “I learned a lot from him,” Cantor said.
After Obama’s election in 2008, Cantor started a group called the National Council for a New America, which sought to embrace the idea that the G.O.P. needed to become more moderate. He told reporters that he was reading David Frum and Ross Douthat, two conservative writers at odds with the rightward drift of the Party. The efforts were short-lived. As the Tea Party movement took off, in 2009, Cantor worked to harness its energy. The National Council for a New America shut down a year later, and Cantor co-authored a book, “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders,” with Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, a congressman from California, who is now the third-ranking Republican in the House. They presented themselves as a new wave of small-government conservatives who would help thwart the Obama agenda.
For the first two years of Obama’s Presidency, while House Republicans were in the opposition, John Boehner shared Cantor’s approach. Things started to change after Republicans took over the chamber in January, 2011. In terms of political intrigue, the relationship between the two men is rivalled only by the complicated partnership of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When Cantor was aligning himself with the Tea Party right, and Boehner was trying to reach a Grand Bargain with the White House, Boehner deputized Cantor to enter into budget negotiations with Vice-President Joe Biden. He thought that Cantor might be brought into the process, rather than working against the deal from afar. But the arrangement was shattered when Cantor learned that the Speaker was secretly negotiating his own deal, directly with the President. It took the men, and their fiercely competitive staffs, months to repair the rift.
The first test for Cantor in his attempt to alter the Party’s trajectory came this winter, as he navigated the maze of fiscal deadlines—the automatic tax hikes, the spending cuts of the sequester, and the debt ceiling. After Election Day, Cantor and Boehner, humbled by the Party’s losses, came to agree on strategy and moved quickly on two fronts. First, the election had made a tax increase inevitable—taxes would rise automatically if there was no deal with Obama to avert the fiscal cliff—so Cantor conceded that they would have to return to negotiating with the White House. They were trying, he said, “to straight up do what we really need to have happen, which is: we’re going to have to increase taxes, and you can’t keep digging the hole deeper, so you got to do something to control spending.”
But Boehner and Cantor needed more control over their most unruly faction. A new Congress is a time to evaluate chairmanships and review committee assignments. Controlling such perks is one of the few remaining sources of leverage that senior Republicans have over junior members. House Republican leaders decided to punish four wayward members who had defied their authority in the previous Congress. In early December, the four men—Tim Huelskamp, Justin Amash, Walter Jones, and David Schweikert—were removed from their committees. On Capitol Hill, the event became known as the Purge.
It did not have the intended effect. A few weeks after the episode, Huelskamp was still outraged. I met him in his Capitol Hill office, and he sprang out of his chair to point out some vaguely conspiratorial details that he said didn’t add up. Huelskamp, a fifth-generation farmer from Kansas who represents that state’s First Congressional District, said that he was being punished for his conservative views, an argument that had made him a minor cause célèbre on Fox News and conservative blogs.
Republicans involved in the decision insisted that the Purge wasn’t about ideology. Huelskamp and Amash were removed from the Budget Committee largely because they refused to vote for Ryan’s budget in the previous Congress. (Huelskamp also lost his assignment on the Agriculture Committee.) Walter Jones was taken off the Financial Services Committee—a coveted assignment, because members attract enormous sums of money from Wall Street—for not helping to raise money for the Party. David Schweikert had voted the wrong way on two-thirds of the key votes that his leadership tracked in the previous Congress, and, I was told, “there was a strong feeling that he had somehow been responsible for this story that broke about skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee,” a reference to a story on Politico, last August, about a member of Congress, Kevin Yoder, of Kansas, who, after a night out with other House members and their families, took off his clothes and plunged into the sacred waters upon which Christians believe Jesus once walked. (Schweikert’s office insisted that he had nothing to do with the story.)
In a previous era, when House leaders punished errant members, there was little recourse for the congressmen; party committees could withhold campaign funds. But Huelskamp said that he was immune to such pressure, since his support came not from House leaders but from grass-roots conservatives. “They will say, ‘Either vote this way or we’ll shut your money off,’ ” he said. “But nobody in Washington elected me, nobody in leadership. Outside groups came and helped me.”
He added, “I’m very upset about the lack of leadership. We came in with high hopes and high expectations—the class of 2010!—and left with a big tax increase, a big spending increase, more corporate welfare, and no entitlement reform. If the Republican leadership doesn’t look, at a minimum, like it’s actually articulated and attempted to advance some conservative principles, then I think we’ll lose the majority.”
Cantor was unapologetic about the Purge. “There was some sense within the House” that some members “were going out of their way to, let’s just say, leverage a certain position against the team as a whole,” he told me. “Again, it wasn’t their votes. It was the conduct that followed.” Still, the episode was a reminder that steering House Republican politics in 2013 could be dangerous. It was not an ideal moment to be peddling a plan to raise taxes.
By early December, Cantor’s and Boehner’s original plan, to negotiate a fiscal-cliff deal directly with the White House, had begun to trouble House conservatives. Boehner was negotiating the details of the tax hike with Obama, as he had in 2011, but this time Cantor clearly agreed with the strategy and the policy. Cantor was simultaneously trying to reposition a deeply unpopular party and preserve his credibility with the most conservative members of the House. (You never knew when Boehner might quit or be overthrown.) Five days before Christmas, the negotiations with Obama stalled. The White House wouldn’t agree to any spending cuts, and a large faction of House Republicans wouldn’t proceed without them.
Merely talking to the President had cost Boehner. News of his concessions to Obama were leaking to House conservatives, some of whom no longer trusted him. Tom Price, the Georgia Republican, recalled reading that Boehner had told Obama that he would accept higher tax rates. “That was an ‘Oh, please, no, tell me I’m reading the wrong story here’ moment,” Price said. “People recoiled.” According to Huelskamp, at one meeting of the full Republican conference a conservative rose and asked the Speaker if they could please send their own person into the negotiating room with Boehner and Obama.
The effort to reach a deal with the President was Plan A. But Obama, energized by his victory, insisted on a deal that raised taxes far more than Boehner would accept. The Speaker suspended the talks, and, with Cantor’s full support, proposed his own plan, and tried to get it through the House. They called it Plan B.
“The purpose of the Speaker’s talking with the President was to get something for the additional monies you’re asking people to pay in,” Cantor said, about the tax increase that they knew they were facing. “When that seemed as if it wasn’t going to meet with a lot of reception on the part of our members, we went to Plan B.”
In theory, passing Plan B would strengthen Republicans in their negotiations with Obama. But it still entailed passing an income-tax hike, something that Republicans hadn’t supported for twenty-two years. Republican dogma held that the 1990 tax increase signed into law by George H. W. Bush had cost him reëlection, in 1992. (The real culprit was probably the recession that year.) For almost a quarter of a century, no policy has been more sacrosanct to the Republican Party than opposition to higher income taxes.
But there was no way around it. The fiscal cliff insured that, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, when the vast majority of the Bush-era tax cuts were allowed to expire, taxes would rise for ninety per cent of Americans anyway. The two sides had now agreed to preserve the Bush-era tax cuts for most taxpayers, and the negotiations had narrowed to one issue: the threshold of income at which a sliver of the wealthiest Americans would pay more. Obama’s long-standing position was that the trigger should be two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Boehner and Cantor’s Plan B set the threshold at a million dollars. At the last minute, Cantor advanced a separate bill with spending cuts that he hoped would attract his most right-wing colleagues to also vote for Plan B. Early on the day Plan B was set to pass, December 20th, Cantor told reporters, “We’re going to have the votes.”
That night, in the Speaker’s Lobby, a hive of ornate rooms, with fireplaces and leather chairs, just behind the rostrum that viewers see on C-SPAN, members of Congress and reporters milled about, trading gossip about the fate of Plan B. Nan Hayworth, the Republican from upstate New York, was sitting a few paces off the floor in an overstuffed chair, explaining how the Tea Party movement in the House had matured. Hayworth is a Princeton-educated doctor, and, like almost half of her 2010 classmates, she had no previous experience in government. Her favorite book is Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson,” a 1946 free-market treatise about the long-term economic impact of government policy.
“We came in saying we have got to move on deficit and debt,” she said as the House voted on a bill to name a government health clinic in Florida. “We have got to move on the Affordable Care Act. We are on the wrong course. If we don’t act, calamity awaits.” Instead, she said, “we experienced the process of having our aspirations and our commitments disappointed.” The Tea Party, like Obama’s most loyal voters after 2008, had been frustrated by the messy reality of the legislative process. “Our supporters looked at the lack of progress and thought, Here we elected this enormous majority in the House of Representatives. We came in with all this enthusiasm and passion, and nothing’s getting done.” Since Election Day, she believed, members were listening to the leadership, which was trying to set a smarter course for the Party.
Boehner and Cantor entered the floor and cornered potential holdouts. One early vote in the evening suggested trouble. It was on the package of deep spending cuts that Cantor had put on the floor to make the tax increase in Plan B more palatable. Twenty-one Republicans, including Huelskamp and Labrador, the core of the rump faction, voted nay, because the cuts weren’t deep enough.
Steve LaTourette, a moderate from Ohio who was retiring, characterized them as “extremists.” Hayworth also thought that they were outliers. “All along, the Speaker explained to us, in straightforward but respectful ways, ‘Look, guys, just realistically, there are some things you’re going to be able to do and some things you’re not.’ But it took a while for some of us to understand.” Hayworth was going to support Plan B. She looked at her phone to make sure she didn’t miss the vote. “You know, you can be a revolutionary, but you’re not necessarily going to be able to do the long, hard grind of governing.”
When we finished talking, Hayworth looked down at her phone again. “That’s weird,” she said. There was no mention of the vote, but she had a message summoning her to an emergency meeting of Republicans in the basement of the Capitol. She and other members filed down to the meeting room, underneath an area known as the Crypt. Along the way, they walked through the Capitol Rotunda, where the flag-draped coffin of Daniel Inouye was lying in state and two young women stood in tears, grieving.
Inside, Boehner opened the meeting with a prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Then he announced that he didn’t have enough votes to pass Plan B, and sent everyone home. Moments later, Hayworth and some two hundred Republicans burst out of the meeting room. Mike Kelly, a heavyset car dealer from western Pennsylvania, shook his head. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” he exclaimed. Boehner, grim-faced and flanked by security, marched out a side door. Paul Ryan, who had kept a low profile since November, tried to slip away unnoticed, but was chased down a hall by a pack of reporters shouting questions. “You’re confusing me with someone who’s commenting,” he said.
As the building emptied, I ran into David Dreier, a California Republican who was retiring from Congress after thirty-two years. “I just don’t have an easy explanation,” Dreier said. “It’s a group up here of members who have been outspoken and are ideologically very conservative. I’ve said for the past four years: I’m a Reagan Republican, which makes me left of center in my party.”
On New Year’s Day, Cantor was back in the Republican conference room underneath the Crypt, with an announcement to make. Twelve days had passed since the Plan B fiasco. Cantor’s first attempt at leadership after the election had failed, leaving Boehner hamstrung in his negotiations with Obama and the Senate. At a White House meeting eight days after Plan B’s demise, Boehner was sullen and silent. He refused to engage in the discussions, and instead repeated talking points: the House had done all it could; now the Senate needed to act. The White House and the Senate negotiated a deal to avert most of the tax hikes in the fiscal cliff; Vice-President Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, who led the final talks, agreed to set the crucial threshold for the new tax rate for upper-income individuals at four hundred thousand dollars (and four hundred and fifty thousand dollars for families). With no time left to negotiate anything more substantive, they simply delayed by two months the sequester—$1.2 trillion in spending cuts that, if not averted, could cost the economy an estimated seven hundred and fifty thousand jobs this year. Although some Democrats warned that the delay was foolish, the deadline was kicked to March 1st. The final bill, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, passed the Senate, by 89–8, shortly after 2 A.M. on New Year’s Day, after five minutes of debate.
House Republicans had to decide what to do with it. If Cantor had had his way, he would have been in Guadeloupe. “My whole family went on a cruise, and I couldn’t go,” he told me, glumly; he had to stay in Washington to deal with the fiscal-cliff crisis. His wife, Diana, said, “This was our twenty-third anniversary, and he missed my fiftieth-birthday cruise also.” Cantor called every morning to check in on her mother, who lives with them and was on the cruise. “She’s his buddy,” she said, “so he’s calling me to make sure that my mother’s happy, that I’m doing enough activities with my mother, because they do crossword puzzles together every night.”
A few hours after his daily call, Cantor walked into the meeting room with Boehner—another public show of alliance. Cantor then announced that he couldn’t vote for the Biden-McConnell compromise. If Obama was getting new revenues, Republicans had to get spending cuts. “I do not support the bill,” he told reporters as he walked out of the meeting. Once again, Cantor had abandoned Boehner at a crucial moment of the negotiations. The Senate bill seemed doomed, and the economy was headed for the cliff.
Later in the day, during a second meeting, Boehner offered his members a stark choice: alter the bill by adding spending cuts to it, and send it back to the Senate, or pass it unamended. Boehner said that he would pursue the amendment approach if two hundred and seventeen Republicans—a majority of the House—favored it. But he warned his colleagues that that would effectively blow up the deal negotiated by Biden and McConnell, and Republicans should prepare to accept the blame for it. A quick count that evening revealed that the votes weren’t there for the more radical approach.
In the end, Boehner’s bill passed, 257–167, but only eighty-five Republicans, mostly from states that Obama won in 2012, voted for it. Cantor watched the vote from the floor. It was one thing to tell his colleagues that he didn’t support the bill, as he had done that morning. But now he had to decide how to vote. When it was clear that the bill would safely pass with Democratic support, he quickly marched down the aisle, voted nay, and left the chamber. The Speaker of the House does not normally vote unless he or she wants to make a statement. But on New Year’s Day Boehner voted for the fiscal-cliff deal, which included more than six hundred billion dollars in higher tax revenue over the next decade. After almost two months of unity, the old Boehner-Cantor divisions had broken into the open. And again it was the Speaker, not Cantor, who was trying to lead the Republicans in a more responsible direction. According to a Republican who spoke with Boehner shortly after the drama of New Year’s Day, the Speaker was blindsided by Cantor’s public opposition to the bill: “He couldn’t believe it.”
Paul Ryan voted for the bill. Since his failed bid for Vice-President, Ryan has been seen as a potential rival to Cantor for the Speaker’s job in a post-Boehner House. “I was torn,” Ryan told me. “You get so tied up in these votes, so I just pulled myself out of it and said, ‘Look, this has to pass. The deal is not going to get better.’ And if I’m saying to people, ‘This has to pass,’ then I ought to vote for it, you know? It’s just not going to get better. I just thought it was important to show some unity at that moment. I understand why people voted against it.” Ryan insisted that there was no rivalry with Cantor. “This is nothing but ridiculous palace intrigue, honestly,” he said. “I’m a policymaker. If I wanted to be in leadership, I would have run for it years ago.”
During my conversation with Cantor in Williamsburg, he seemed uncomfortable talking about his vote on the Senate bill and again pointed to the lack of spending cuts in exchange for the tax increases to which Republicans had acceded. “You cannot keep telling people, ‘I’m just going to raise your taxes,’ and then not fix the problem!” he told me. He insisted that Boehner knew where he stood. “John and I were very up front with each other,” he said. “He and I had met one on one that morning.” He added, “It was my impression that we were on the same page. We both didn’t like this bill. We both did not like it and both were upset that we couldn’t have moved the needle.” (Boehner’s office said that the two men did not have a one-on-one meeting but that there was a larger leadership meeting that morning at which Cantor made it clear how he would vote.)
I told Cantor that other Republican members were baffled that their leadership was so divided on the issue. “I felt John and I had communicated with each other,” Cantor said. “And I felt, you’ve gotta do something about this problem! You can’t just kick the can! And that’s what caused me to vote like that. Is it a vote that members like to see? No.”