Did Eric Cantor Forget That All Politics Are Local?

The House majority leader says he will step down from that post after a surprise loss. For more, host Michel Martin speaks with Republican strategist Ron Christie and Univision's Fernando Espuelas.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'll begin today by taking another look at a political story that shocked the political world on Tuesday. We're talking about House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's loss in his party primary race to political newcomer David Brat. David Brat still has the general election to face but there's been an immediate consequence. Leader Cantor has decided to step down early from his leadership post, setting off a fight to replace him as second in command to Speaker John Boehner. We're also wondering not just about what happened in Cantor's district but also what affect, if any, this will have on the fate of big issues pending in the House, particularly immigration reform, which is one of the issues David Brat campaigned on. So we've called Ron Christie, he is a former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. He is now a Republican strategist and communications advisor. Welcome back, and he's here Washington, D.C.

RON CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Good to see you. Fernando Espuelas is host and managing editor of the "Fernando Espuelas" show on Univision. He's here in Washington, D.C. as well. Welcome back to you.

FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me, let me start with a clip from the victory speech of David Brat, who beat Eric Cantor. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID BRAT: This campaign was about just basic American values and virtues right from the beginning. And the basic premise is power belongs to the people and that's what we're going to do.

MARTIN: That power belongs to the people line is important because David Brat was considered a, kind of a tea party favorite. But now there's this storyline emerging that the real issue really isn't any big issue of David Brat, it's that Cantor was deeply unpopular in his own district with his constituents who felt he had lost touch. So the question I have Ron Christie is, first of all, which, which argument do you credit and why didn't he know that? I mean, he was vastly over, he vastly outspent David Brat, why didn't he know he was in trouble?

CHRISTIE: Well, this race is amazing to me Michel because you're looking at someone who amassed the better part of $5 million and his opponent had less than $200,000. I think Eric Cantor honestly spent more time on K Street, here in Washington, D.C., with the lobbyists and the special interest community rather than Main Street, back in his district, back down near Richmond, Virginia. And this really, honestly, doesn't surprise me all that much. There's been a rumor for several years that Cantor has lost touch with his constituents. And the fact that he would lose to someone who is a political unknown from Randolph Macon College, which is not necessarily on a lot of people's radar screens, might be surprising. But again, if you spend more time with the lobbyists and the special interests and don't take care of, Tip O'Neill's old adage that all politics is local, you're going to find yourself back at home.

MARTIN: Interestingly enough, David Brat is facing a, is facing another professor from the same college in the general election. But let's, I want to focus on immigration reform. And Fernando, this is one of the reasons we called you because you've been covering it very closely, speaking with people on both sides, you know, of the aisle and on all sides of the issue on your program. Some people are saying that Cantor's support for an immigration initiative, a Republican immigration initiative, cost him conservative support because David Brat then portrayed him as a, as pro-amnesty. And this is what Eric Cantor himself had to say at his press conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONGRESSMAN ERIC CANTOR: My position on immigration has not changed. It didn't change from before the election, during the election, or the way it is today. You know, I have always said the system is broken, it needs reforms. I think it is much more desirable, and frankly doable, if we did it one step at a time. Working towards where we have common ground and believe things in common.

MARTIN: But do you credit that argument, that this support for this Republican alternative is what cost him?

ESPUELAS: I don't really. I mean, I think it's an element of it, certainly. But I would agree with Ron that he was just so disconnected from his district. I think his disapproval ratings were in the 60's, which is not a good place to be when you're spending $5.3 million I think it was Ron. But look, he was never a supporter of immigration reform. Just what he said right now is nonsensical. The Senate has said over and over again we will not consider little pieces to what is a very big problem. And I think...

CHRISTIE: Well...

ESPUELAS: ...That Cantor probably was trying to play with both sides. At the end of the day, my sources in Congress tell me that he was probably the biggest blockage to actually bringing a vote on the floor. And so, I don't think, really, immigration is the main issue here.

MARTIN: Do you, so you don't feel the loss of his presence per se, has any effect on whether this issue will proceed or not?

ESPUELAS: Well, I think it's going to be manipulated by many sides. I know the Democrats are saying it has no impact and therefore we should just keep, you know, it will happen somehow in the next four weeks, which I think is rather wishful thinking. But I also think that the, if you will, the tea party types will use it to frighten Republicans into saying if you have any support for immigration reform, we will come after you. I think at the end, they're drawing the wrong lesson. They are alienating key voting groups, Hispanics principally, to such a degree, that I think they're converting the national Republican party into the California Republican party, where there are no statewide elected officials after Governor Pete Wilson went after immigrants.

MARTIN: Ron Christie, what's your perspective on this?

CHRISTIE: Well, I spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill yesterday, and I think that immigration is dead this year. It's over. I, you know...

MARTIN: Because of this or because, just, it was anyway?

CHRISTIE: I think it was on life support before. I mean, I had members say to me yesterday, done. It's over. We're stunned, we're not going down the way that Cantor went down. And I think there are two lessons to draw from this. First, I think that a lot of members of Congress right now recognize that this is going to be a very volatile election. This is no longer going to be, just because incumbents are reelected with a 92 percent, you know, overall in their campaigns, this year is different. People are very upset about the economy. People are very upset about the seeming lack of direction in our foreign policy. And I think all of the members that I've spoken to, particularly yesterday, get the feeling that they've been home for a couple of weeks with their constituents and their constituents are angry. And they think that Washington is broken and it's not working. And I think Cantor's defeat is only one manifestation of this. I think it portends a broader trend that we're going to see in November.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our political chat. Our guests are Republican strategist Ron Christie and Fernando Espuelas, host and managing editor of the show "Fernando Espuelas Show." Well, Fernando, because, you know, you talked about the fact that this anti-immigration sentiment, or at least the way it's expressed is very damaging to Republicans among key constituencies.

ESPUELAS: Sure.

MARTIN: But I do want to mention that of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a nominal, well, was a Republican, he ran as a Republican and did become governor of California, but had a very different message on that. But the fact is, you know, Latinos are not very present as a political force in a district like Eric Cantor's, for all kinds of reasons.

ESPUELAS: Right.

MARTIN: But, so if that's not the case, then this may be true on a national level, but on district, on a district by district level, it doesn't seem to be, I mean, do you credit Ron's perspective on this? That actually, whether you think it should matter on the substance or on a granular level, it matters as these individuals look at their own individual districts and say, if that's not the sentiment of my constituents then I'm not going to go there?

ESPUELAS: Well, I think going back to the California examples, since Pete Wilson in the early nineties tried to essentially bring forth the equivalent of the Arizona anti-immigrant law, the percentage of Hispanic voters in every single election in California has increased. Every single election. To the point now that you cannot be elected in California unless you have, you carry the Hispanic vote. And I think that that was a catalyst, that Pete Wilson was a catalyst. And I think, when you look at the pathetic level of Hispanic registration, 40% of eligible voters not registered, I mean, it's just purely pathetic. These kinds of events are the stimuli that essentially create an electorate. And that's frankly what's going to happen.

MARTIN: Ron Christie what lesson do you draw from say the Lindsey Graham example. South Carolina senator who was perceived to be in trouble and he won his primary race. Also against a tea party opponent. And so is this, how do you read that? I this an issue between say the difference between a congressional district and a Senate race? Is it like the bigger the canvas the easier it is to make an argument for comprehensive reform or to take a stand on big issues? How do you interpret those very different results?

CHRISTIE: Well I think Fernando had it right a few moments ago. I think Lindsay Graham is a very good politician, both here in Washington dealing with lobbyists and special interest groups. And he's very good when he goes back at home and deals with those constituents. So you can make the argument that Eric Cantor played and touched all the right bases here in town but he didn't touch the most important base which is his hometown constituents. Whereas Lindsey Graham made the sale. Lindsey Graham went home people like Lindsey Graham, you know, there's this big cacophony here in Washington of kind of, oh he's John McCain sidekick and all this, but they like him in South Carolina. And his election in this primary only proves that.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit if you would about the leadership race. And I understand for a lot of people this is very arcane and kind of inside baseball stuff but as we see these figures do become national figures and they do have an impact. So thoughts about the scramble to replace Eric Cantor. Who as we said is second in command to John Boehner?

CHRISTIE: Eric Cantor is the House Majority Leader. The House Majority Leader is in charge of setting not only the agenda of which bills will receive a vote on the House floor and which ones won't come to the floor, but they also have the job of taking the pulse of the House Republican conference now that they are in the majority. This is a very important election, I think that the odds on favorite is Kevin McCarthy from California who's the whip. The whips job is to count all the votes for a very important legislation -come to the floor. But this is where I think the Tea Party could have an impact here. The tea party wants one of theirs at the leadership table. They're not happy with John Boehner, they're not happy with Eric Cantor and their saying, you're not listening to us, you're not listening to our concerns. I think you might have an outside candidate, someone that's a Tea Party representative. Someone like Pete Sessions from Texas, someone like Jeb Hensarling form Texas, to really take a good shot at running to make sure the other voices are at John Boehner's leadership table.

MARTIN: And final - Fernando is there anybody who bridges that? You know, you're talking about the sleeping giant of the Latino vote which is certainly very present in - you know it used to be a regional vote - is now becoming a national vote. Is there somebody who bridges both the kind of the tea party side and also talk about bringing new voices to the table ensures that the Republican brand is not permanently damaged on a national level? Is there anybody you see any offing in the leadership race who could do that?

ESPUELAS: Well I mean - no. Right now the Congress seems to me so out of whack with at least the Hispanic electorate that it's very difficult to see who that person would be. It's from bad to worse in terms of what their declarations are about. But I would agree, I think Lindsey Graham is someone who is a politician of integrity. And he says what he means and he expresses it well. And so you may or may not agree with the full spectrum of his opinions but you feel like you're talking to a real person who loves America principally and then the party.

MARTIN: Ok but he's not a candidate for the majority leader in the house - he's a senator- is there anybody in the senate, in the house do you think-

ESPUELAS: I'm saying who is that person in the house. I don't know that person in the house.

MARTIN: Well we'll keep watching and we'll keep talking to you all about it. Thank you both so much. Fernando Espuelas is host and managing editor of the "Fernando Espuelas Show" on Univision. He was here with us in Washington D.C. along with Ron Christie. Former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. Now a Republican strategist and communications advisor. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CHRISTIE: Thank you.

ESPUELAS: Good to be with you.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.