3 Myths About Eric Cantor's Defeat: Immigration, Anti-Semitism and Cooter

Many explanations have been suggested for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's, R-Va., shocking electoral defeat by political novice David Brat. These three are the worst.

1) He was "soft" on immigration reform.

Here are a few of the headlines that followed news of Cantor's defeat: "Eric Cantor loss kills immigration reform," "Cantor loss immigration reform death knell," "Eric Cantor a Casualty of Immigration Reform."

These headlines must sound odd to those who have been trying to get immigration reform passed. Cantor has been the biggest obstacle to immigration reform. All the other Republican leaders want to pass it this year. Cantor has been the stumbling block.

While Brat did make immigration an issue in the campaign, Cantor's incosistency was likely the bigger problem. He sent out a harsh-sounding mailer saying he would stop "amnesty" for "illegal aliens" while in another context he advocated a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the country as minors.

If support for immigration reform makes Republicans vulnerable in their primaries, why did Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been one of the strongest supporters of immigration reform, easily win his primary; and, why did Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, who even mocked members of his own party who opposed immigration reform, easily win his primary?

Additionally, the myth would imply that Republicans in Cantor's district oppose immigration reform. The only publicly available poll conducted this year, however, suggests that is not the case. A majority (70 percent or 72 percent, depending on how the question is asked), "strongly support" or "somewhat support" immigration reform, according to the June 10 survey by Public Policy Polling. The sample size was small in that poll (488 for the full sample, not just Republicans), but the strong majority should at least bring some doubt to the notion that Cantor lost because he was "too soft" on immigration.

2) Voters were anti-Semitic.

Voters in Cantor's district, particularly evangelical voters, did not like him because he is Jewish, some pundits have suggested.

The New York Times wrote this: "David Wasserman, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said another, more local factor has to be acknowledged: Mr. Cantor, who dreamed of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House, was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative.

"'Part of this plays into his religion,' Mr. Wasserman said. 'You can't ignore the elephant in the room.'"

And, in an article for the New York Daily News, Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote: "[Cantor] was highly visible as the only Jewish Republican in the House, in a district with a strong evangelical presence."

In an article for The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway mentions numerous other examples of reporters on Twitter and elsewhere attempting to draw the connection between Cantor's Jewish faith and his electoral defeat.

Left unexplained in this theory, however, is why these supposedly anti-Semitic Evangelicals sent Cantor to Congress seven previous times. Before that he represented an overlapping district in the state legislature beginning in 1992.

Did these voters suddenly discover their congressman is Jewish and decide they did not like that? Unlikely. Brat never made Cantor's faith an issue in the election.

In response to the accusations, John Podhoretz, who is Jewish and the editor of Commentary, wrote: "Eric Cantor is a proud Jew, and it is indeed unfortunate that the Republican party is left without a single Jewish elected voice in Washington. But his Judaism had nothing to do with his loss, and the only reason for suggesting otherwise is to tar David Brat and the voters of the seventh congressional district in Virginia with the taint of anti-Semitism. Shameful."

3) It was Cooter.

The weekend before the election, Ben Jones, a former congressman who played Cooter on the 1980's TV show, "Dukes of Hazzard," penned an "open letter" to Democrats in Cantor's district asking them to crossover to the Republican primary and vote for Brat.

Jones, a Democrat, ran against Cantor in 2002. The experience left him with some strongly negative impressions of Cantor.

"From what I know of Dave Brat, he is a good, honest, and honorable man. And from what I know of Eric Cantor, I can say only that he ran a truly dishonorable campaign against me back in 2002. ... He simply cannot be taken at his word. You can call that 'sour grapes' if you want to, but I am just telling it the way it was, and surely is," he wrote.

Cantor's pollster, John McLaughlin, believes the "Cooter factor" partly explains why his poll showing Cantor winning by 34 percentage points was so far off.

"Over the weekend Democrats like Ben Jones and liberal media were driving their Democratic voters on the internet into the open primary," McLaughlin told National Journal in an email. "... Untold story, is who were the new primary voters? They were probably not Republicans."

Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato's politics blog, called the theory "a bunch of bunk."

There was an increased turnout from 2012, Skelley pointed out, but that increased turnout came in heavily Republican districts. Precincts with a high percentage of Democrats did not see a bump in turnout.

Cantor lost, Skelley notes, because he did not get his own voters to the polls. In 2012, he got 37,369 votes. In this week's election, he only had 28,898 votes. If those who voted for Cantor in 2012 had voted for him in 2014, he would have won.

Why did he lose?

If it was not immigration, anti-Semitism, or Cooter, why did Cantor lose? Pollsters, pundits and political scientists will, no doubt, be debating that question for years to come.

One potential answer can be found in the PPP survey. When asked if they approve of the House Republican leadership, 50 percent of the Republicans in Cantor's district said they disapprove. In some districts, in some years, it may be difficult to both run for Congress and speaker of the House.

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