COMMENTARY | The rule of thumb is that incumbents almost always win, just like the house in gambling. A challenger must overcome the incumbent’s considerable advantage in name recognition, newsworthiness, and experience. The incumbent almost always has more money, access to better and more experienced staffers, and the power of the bully pulpit. He or she usually has more powerful connections, especially with the media. And the more powerful the incumbent, the greater the advantages enjoyed.
Which is why the upset of Republican congressman Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, in his Virginia district’s GOP primary by an unknown Tea Party challenger is such big news. According to TIME, Randolph-Macon College economics professor Dave Brat, a political neophyte, bested Cantor 55 percent to 44 percent in Tuesday’s primary election, stunning the news cycle. Critics have blamed Cantor’s surprise defeat on his trend toward the political middle, with the ultraconservative Brat successfully convincing voters that Cantor was no longer a true conservative. Others also note that Cantor, like many incumbents, had done little campaigning and appeared to assume that his victory was assured; he spent little time courting local interests and instead focused on his job in Washington.
The first lesson? Incumbents beware! This, of course, is good news. Our congressional incumbents should never be too comfortable and assume they enjoy the perks of a “safe district.” Our free market demands healthy competition, including among political candidates. Leaders should always strive to serve and improve their performance, never settling to coast on their past achievements. What happened to Cantor this week could happen to many incumbents next time around if they continue to take their constituents for granted.
Secondly, the Tea Party is not finished. While many pundits considered the erosion of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Ted Cruz to be a sign that the Tea Party was doomed to obscurity, Brat’s upset victory in Virginia has shown that ultraconservatives have staying power. Voters are not looking for moderates in this time of political and economic uncertainty and there are still plenty of hackles raised. Conservatives want a fighter in their corner, and Cantor appeared to have grown too complacent.
Third, the upset victory means a win for Democrats, who have more power as long as the Republican party is still tearing itself asunder. Not only does the Democratic party look more stable and united by contrast, but moderates and independents are more likely to support a moderate Democrat over a Tea Party radical when there is no moderate Republican as an alternative. A Tea Party upstart may appeal to disgruntled Republicans, but to win a major election you have to remember that plenty of voters consider themselves moderates and independents.
Finally, challengers have seen a good example of how to take down an entrenched incumbent. There is now blood in the water and energetic neophytes may soon emerge from the woodwork, ready to strike. Incumbents may, like Cantor, be faced with accusations of growing complacent on the Hill, forgetting their constituents back home. Challengers may also, like Brat, put on a successful show of being an average Joe (or Jane), such as when Brat sat out a GOP meet-and-greet to grade papers, showing voters that he valued his day job and wasn’t desperate to play political games. Challengers have seen a successful run of the “average guy who still has his principles” play and may use it in November.
All in all, Cantor’s loss may be a good thing: Though I disagree with Brat’s politics, I know that Washington needs new faces and fresh blood. Fresh blood brings new ideas and new possibilities. And, if that fails, new blood is also easier to vote out of office, having not yet developed the powerful ties that come from many terms in office.