Eric Cantor lost because…
Peter Suderman, in a blog post on Reason.com, does a good job of summarizing potential explanations.
Theory 1: “It was about immigration reform and ‘amnesty.’” This was certainly the analysis most commentators offered on election night.
Theory 2: “It was about big business, crony capitalism, and corporate welfare.”
Theory 3: “It was about local-level constituent service.”
Theory 4: “It was about reform conservatism.” (Citing Ezra Klein: “His loss suggests reform conservatism doesn’t have much of a constituency, even among Republican primary voters. The Republican base, at least in Cantor’s district, isn’t in the mood for technocratic solutionism. It’s still angry, and it still believes that any accommodation is too much accommodation.”)
Theory 5: by voting in the Republican primary, “Democrats staged an operation chaos to give Cantor the boot.” (This theory was endorsed by Cantor’s pollster, John McLaughlin.)
And then there’s this.
Theory 6: “Virginia Republicans didn’t want to vote for Cantor because he’s Jewish.” As soon as Suderman advances this theory, however, he dismisses it: “The problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t explain why that became an issue now. Cantor’s religion has never been an issue in his district before.”
There are, however, at least three reasons why Cantor’s religion may have become an issue now.
First, the redrawing of Cantor’s district. Cantor was not running in the same district that had originally elected him. Cantor’s district had been redrawn in 2010 to include more Republican, but also more rural, voters. Cantor’s religion was clearly anomalous in a district where, the New York Times reports, Jews represent something like one-quarter of one percent of the population. The addition to the district of more rural voters might well have made the territory less fertile ground for the only Jewish Republican in the House.
Second, the ascendancy of the Tea Party. While affirmation of religious faith has been a cornerstone of conservative politics for some time, the Tea Party has been particularly open about espousing “Christian” values. The website Teaparty.org assures us that, although “you do not have to be a Christian to enjoy freedom,” we are a “Christian nation.” (Actually, lest there be any doubt, the website is more emphatic than that. “Yes, we are a Christian nation,” it declares.)
To see how deeply ingrained Christian values are in the Tea Party movement, consider the other brewing Tea Party-versus- Establishment Republican story of the moment, the contest between Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran and his Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. McDaniel was able to force the six-term incumbent Cochran into a runoff by delivering, in the words of The Hill, “a political sermon of sorts, drawing from the scripture of the Founding Fathers to make a case for Christians to stand up and fight to reclaim America’s culture and re-establish the nation’s Christian foundation.”
Third, the open religiosity of Cantor’s opponent. Cantor’s challenger, David Brat, is uniquely qualified to serve as a messenger for the Tea Party’s Christian values. As The New York Times reported, Brat, a Roman Catholic, has a divinity degree from the Princeton Theological Seminary and regularly invokes God and “Judeo-Christian values” in his speeches. He is the author of an article on usury and capitalism, in which he posed the questions: “What is the Christian response to an ever-increasing size of government? What does God want?” On election night, from Brat’s standpoint, he may have gotten his answer. After defeating Cantor, Brat called in to Fox News and spoke of his victory in religious terms, calling the defeat of Cantor a “miracle” and opining that “God acted through the people on my behalf.” How was Cantor ever going to compete with that?
This is not to say that there was anti-semitism at play in the Cantor-Brat election. Although the Times reports that there had been a “whisper campaign” against Cantor when he first ran for the House—at that time, his opponent was portrayed as the “only Christian in the race,” there was “nothing of that sort this time,” a “Jewish lobbyist and Cantor supporter” reportedly told the Times.
Still, it’s silly to pretend that Cantor’s religion had nothing to do with the outcome of the election. “What do you think—too Jewish?” is the punchline to any number of jokes. In a “Christian nation,” in a district where there is a smaller percentage of Jews than there is a percentage of fat in non-fat milk, in an election where the winning candidate claims that his victory is an expression of God’s will, it’s just possible that simply being Jewish was too Jewish.