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Relevant lessons: What local leaders can learn from Virginia vote


What lesson should candidates and political activists here draw from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprising defeat in a Virginia primary Tuesday?

Much of the early analysis concluded that the congressman was dragged down by the albatross of immigration reform, which now can be presumed even deader, if that’s possible, for the rest of the year.

And if the win by the virtually unknown challenger, David Brat, shows that the tea party/far right movement is not dead in Virginia, it’s safe to presume it’s doing OK in Indiana, as well. The defeats of Reps. Rebecca Kubacki and Kathy Heuer last month offered persuasive evidence of that, too. Both conscientious, hard-working, solidly Republican legislators, Kubacki and Heuer lost in part because they voted against a meaningless and mean-spirited attempt to put a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the ballot.

If Cantor’s at-best-tepid support of immigration reform was enough to offset the balance of his very conservative record in Congress, we will soon get to the point that no Republican who makes any attempt to work within the system is confrontational enough for the far right.

But that may be overanalyzing Cantor’s defeat by a virtual unknown who campaigned on a shoestring. Perhaps the more important lesson is an echo of the lesson from Sen. Richard Lugar’s defeat by Treasurer Richard Mourdock in 2012: Don’t lose touch with the people you represent.

With his infamous God-intended-rape-conceptions comment later that year and the Nazi analogies he spouted recently in Fort Wayne, Mourdock may seem more like a street-corner crank than a serious politician. But his campaign to beat Lugar was dead-on, laser-focusing on the way the senator had neglected his home base as he pursued important national and international goals. And Mourdock’s campaign scored big points by stressing that Lugar’s home was in Washington, not Indiana.

It appears that something akin was in play in Cantor’s defeat. He outspent Brat 40 to 1, but most of his resources came from out of state. For someone in as powerful a position as Cantor’s, the money flows in freely, but sometimes it comes with strings attached. Some constituents felt dissed when Cantor spent time traveling around the country in support of Republican candidates that he could have spent back in his home district.

The public’s growing frustration with the national government argues for a recalibration of that kind of ambition.

“If you’re a power player in Washington,” said Michael R. Wolf of IPFW’s Department of Political Science, “you’ve made yourself a target.”

Whatever else it shows, Brat’s victory validates the power of grassroots democracy, Wolf said. Incumbency and influence and big campaign coffers – once a surefire combination for electoral success – no longer always win the day.

This area’s Washington representatives seem to understand the concept of keeping in touch with the folks back home. Reps. Marlin Stutzman and Jackie Walorski and Sens. Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly all regularly spend their weekends back in Indiana and keep the local media supplied with a steady stream of reports about their activities. All four of them have, commendably, ventured beyond the partisanship of broken Washington to support better VA treatment for veterans.

Indeed, Stutzman was one of the first to grasp the lesson of his close colleague Cantor’s loss, telling The Journal Gazette’s Brian Francisco on Wednesday that Cantor suffered from a “disconnect” with voters. But the congressman said Thursday he wants to become the House majority whip, to fill the void Cantor’s defeat is creating.

Stutzman already has sampled the benefits of Washington influence. Money rolled into his re-election campaign from banks, accountants and the like after he joined the House Financial Services Committee.

Wolf thinks that Stutzman will be safer from the charge of insiderism. During the government shutdown, for instance, Stutzman “seemed to be one of the people that wouldn’t open the government back up.”

But anyone who gets a leadership position risks being linked symbolically with “the establishment.” Though he was an unwavering conservative, Cantor had to at least hobnob with Democratic leaders. In his campaign, Brat used a photo of Cantor sitting with President Obama.

And no matter how intransigent a conservative like Stutzman might try to appear, a congressional leader has to … lead.

Maybe there’s a way to move up the ladder in Washington without acquiring an “insider” taint or losing touch with people at home. But it seems germane to recall that as a rising GOP leader, Cantor spoke at the Allen County Lincoln Day Dinner last spring at the invitation of Stutzman, who called him “one of the great leaders in Washington.” Maybe Cantor should have spent that Monday back in Virginia.