Party leaders regularly lose re-election or face very tough challengers in the primary or general election. And maybe that’s not a coincidence. Maybe voters don’t like the feeling that representing them is a congressman’s second job.
House majority leader is a full-time job, especially when the majority one is leading is famously divided and independent-minded. Throw in ambitions to be speaker, and being titular head of a mini-think tank, and Eric Cantor was very, very busy. Good for him.
Let Cantor constituent Robert Tracinski explain at the Federalist why some people back home didn't love this.
For almost as long as I’ve lived here, which is coming up on 20 years now, the purpose of the seventh district has been to re-elect Eric Cantor every two years. ...
And Cantor knew it. Because he didn’t have to worry too much about getting re-elected every two years, his political ambition was channeled into rising through the hierarchy of the House leadership. Rise he did, all the way up to the #2 spot, and he was waiting in the wings to become Speaker of the House.
The result was that Cantor’s real constituency wasn’t the folks back home. His constituency was the Republican leadership and the Republican establishment. That’s who he really answered to.
This may sound backwards to some people inside the Beltway. Isn’t it supposed to be a good thing when your congressman has above-average power in Washington? Shouldn’t your district’s added “clout” outweigh the costs of your representative having less time to care about you?
Here's the thing: “clout” is often a euphemism for earmarks and pork. And Washington sometimes overestimates how easily voters can be bought off by federal largesse.
Particular to Cantor's situation (and to some extent, Thad Cochran's plight), “clout,” is not all that valuable for Republicans these days. Using government as a dispenser of favors is out of fashion on the Right these days. It's cronyism.
And if you’re busy with other jobs on Capitol Hill, how are you supposed to pay attention back home? Historically, you did it with earmarks!
Tracinski has a priceless story on this:
Here’s my favorite Eric Cantor story. At the Republican Convention in 2008, I approached Cantor after an event, introduced myself as a constituent, and told him where I lived. It’s a tiny place, more of a wide spot in the road than an actual town, so this was partly a test to see how well Cantor knew his own district. I turns out that he did recognize the town, and to prove it, he started to tell me about how he had worked on getting us an earmark for a local Civil War battlefield park. An earmark, mind you, just after Republicans had officially renounced earmarks in an attempt to appease small-government types. Cantor suddenly realized this and literally stopped himself in mid-sentence. Then he hastily added: “But we don’t do that any more.”
Republicans don’t do that anymore. They banned earmarks in 2010. So Eric Cantor ends up too busy to shake hands back home, and the GOP ends up too pure for Cantor to send pork back home. Suddenly, Virginia’s 7th District feels abandoned. So he lost their affection.
A related phenomenon could be the difficulty faced by lawmakers seeking re-election following a presidential run: Bob Smith’s primary defeat in 2002, Chris Dodd’s horrible poll numbers in 2010, Joe Lieberman’s primary loss in 2006, to name a few.
Congressmen: Voters are your bosses. Make them believe you see them that way, or you can get fired.