How could this happen? House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's resounding defeat by David Brat, an economics professor with no political experience, has politicians across the country asking that question. Here are four lessons they can learn from that race.
Lesson 1: Ground War > Air War
It is a lesson that experience and empirical studies have demonstrated often, but some campaign managers still do not get – a good ground war (volunteers going door to door) trumps a good air war (TV and radio ads). Face-to-face interaction or a live phone call (not pre-recorded) will almost always have a greater impact on a potential voter than a campaign ad.
Cantor spent millions on the race, close to $5 million according to some estimates, while the Brat campaign spent less than $150,000. (Some disclosure forms have yet to be filed.) The Brat campaign made up for the lack of money, however, with volunteer hours.
Zachary Werrell, Brat's 23-year-old campaign manager, told the Washington Examiner "the focus was 100 percent grassroots."
"We had dozens of people knocking every day – not every day, sometimes only one person. But we had a few spectacular volunteers that, I don't even know how they managed to hold down a job, let alone volunteer all those hours for us," he said.
Lesson 2: "Great, kid. Don't get cocky."
Politicians would do well to follow Han Solo's advice to Luke Skywalker. Cantor's defeat is partly due to his own hubris.
As Erick Erickson reported for Red State, Cantor and his staff angered many during his tenure, and not just Tea Party types but establishment Republicans and K street lobbyists as well. His staff were the "biggest bunch of a**holes on the Hill," one anonymous conservative explained to Erickson.
A politician or a staffer generally will not treat others poorly unless they feel invincible. This feeling of invincibility was demonstrated in May when Cantor voted against the majority of his own party on a bill that, critics say, was corporate welfare, then he bragged about it on Twitter, even posting a photo with the vote totals showing that he voted with the Democrats.
Lesson 3: Don't Offend the People Who Elect You
In some ways, Cantor's loss is reminiscent of the last major upset of a party leader – Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994.
Foley sued his own voters. After his Washington State voters passed a referendum limiting the terms of their congressional members, Foley successfully took his voters to court and won.
While Cantor did not do sue his own voters, he offended them in other ways. His rise to a position of leadership gained him a reputation as someone more interested in national politics and events in D.C. than his own district. And, as the Richmond Times Dispatch reported, Cantor was rejected twice by his voters when he tried to influence the outcome of local party decisions. Combined, these led to the impression that Cantor felt more beholden to big-money interests and Republican big-wigs than his district.
At a town hall event in May, Cantor was booed by conservatives in his district. In retrospect, this should have been a sign of what was coming.
Lesson 4: How You Spend is More Important Than How Much You Raise
Raising a lot of money can certainly help one win an election, but how you spend that money also matters.
Spending a lot of money on TV ads will not do much good if they are ineffective. The message of the ads against Brat (which were, essentially, "he's a college professor, so I bet he's really liberal") likely did not resonate much with voters.
There was also much wasteful spending in the Cantor campaign. Business Insider pointed out that the Cantor spent more money on steak dinners at two restaurants ($168,637) than Brat did on his entire campaign. According to The Washington Post, in 2013 alone the Cantor campaign spent $167,512 on airfare, $261,962 on fundraising consultants, $305,018 for event catering, $521,584 for payroll, and an additional $708,143 was placed on credit cards. How many votes did all that spending get him?