Would A Nonpartisan Open Primary Have Saved Eric Cantor?

Created: 11 June, 2014
Updated: 14 October, 2022
4 min read

Eric Cantor will no longer represent Virginia's 7th Congressional District. In what is arguably the biggest primary defeat since Republicans took control of the U.S. House in 2010, the chamber's majority leader was ousted by primary opponent Dave Brat.

Who is Dave Brat? Brat is a 49-year-old economics professor at the Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. A candidate who identified himself as a principled candidate with no label, he campaigned on the promise to address the expanding national deficit and attacked Eric Cantor for supporting "amnesty" for unlawful immigrants.Brat had no name recognition and no experience in elected office. So, how exactly did Brat win? It is the question everyone is asking and trying to answer, but while many commentators and analysts are looking at a variety of theories (as there are many variables that go into this), very few are looking at the election system itself.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting in, Brat garnered 55.55 percent of the vote -- 36,110 votes out of 65,008 total. That is 65,000 votes in a district with just over 473,000 active registered voters.

Virginia has an open partisan primary system, meaning that all voters have an opportunity to participate in the primary process, but they must pick between a Democratic and a Republican ballot. However, according to Ballotpedia, voters must sign an oath of loyalty to the Republican Party declaring that they have only voted for candidates with a "R" next to their name in order to vote in the GOP primary.



The legality of this oath requirement in an open primary system that is supposed to be inclusive of voters can and should be called into question. Historically, a small handful of partisan voters participate in the primary process even under an open partisan system, but the Virginia GOP rules are designed to make sure only the most partisan GOP voters cast a ballot.

So while many people are expressing shock that Cantor was ousted in the primary, should it really surprise anyone that this happened? In a primary election where only the most partisan are told they can vote, it only makes sense that this segment of the electorate would vote for the candidate who is perceived to be the most partisan.

Brat beat Cantor with nearly 8 percent of the electorate in a district the congressman garnered nearly 60 percent of the vote during the 2010 and 2012 general elections. The district is solidly Republican so as long as Cantor could win the primary, he was guaranteed re-election.

But Cantor is the "establishment" candidate. He is the "Washington insider," portrayed as not conservative enough for the GOP by his opponent.

These political buzzwords, "establishment" and "Washington insider," are effective when reaching out to tea party and grassroots conservative activists in a time when discontent with Congress is at an all-time high and various grassroots movements are trying to remove the old GOP guard in place of a new guard they say represent true Republican principles.

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This is what Brat ran on -- and he won.

The biggest attack on Cantor from grassroots activists and conservative groups was Cantor's maneuvering to get his caucus to move forward with some kind of comprehensive immigration reform.

As Michael Austin pointed out in a piece written for IVN, Cantor is a real conservative. More than that, though, he is a real Republican who understands that the party has to tap into the growing Latino voting bloc if they are going to be competitive in national elections again.

Additionally, as a member of the Republican leadership in the U.S. House, Cantor is charged with governing. The conflict that arises between effective leadership and political ideology is ultimately what opened the door for Dave Brat.

"His ideology was as pure as it could be for somebody who also has the responsibility to govern," Austin writes. "But that in itself is problematic, since governing under the Constitution requires compromise, while ideological purity forbids it."

This raises the question if some kind of nonpartisan election reform could have saved Eric Cantor's political career. Under a nonpartisan open primary, Cantor would have been able to appeal to Democrats and voters not affiliated with either major party who want to see some form of comprehensive immigration reform or congressional leadership that actually tries to govern responsibly.

His message would have been simple: "If my opponent wins, immigration reform is dead."

The media rarely discusses how important primary elections are. With a turnout of only 13 percent in a district that heavily favors Republicans, Brat only needed less than 7 percent of the electorate to ensure that he will be sworn in as the new representative of Virginia's seventh district in 2015. This is not how a representative democracy is supposed to work.

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Photo Source: CNN

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