On Tuesday night, Republican Congressman Eric Cantor became the first House Majority Leader to lose a primary. Earlier this week, a surprise resignation by a State Senate Democrat tilted power to Republicans in Richmond, and dealt a major blow to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s plan to expand Medicaid. We explore political intrigue in the Commonwealth, and how it could impact national debates.
- Michael Pope Northern Virginia reporter, WAMU 88.5; political reporter, Connection Newspapers; Author, "Hidden History of Alexandria, D.C." (The History Press)
- Quentin Kidd Professor of Political Science and Director of the Wason Center for Public Policy, Christopher Newport University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, The Science of Hunger. New research challenges long-held assumptions about why we crave food. But first stunning twists and turns in Virginia politics.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILast night, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the second-most powerful man in the House, lost his Republican primary in Virginia's 7th District, falling to a Tea Party-aligned economics professor named David Brat, and becoming the first majority leader in American history to lose his seat to a member of his own party.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe news shocked Washington and challenged some prevailing narratives about the 2014 elections. And it once again focused national attention on the Commonwealth. On Monday, it was a different Virginia tale of political intrigue that captured headlines when Senate Republicans successfully rebalanced power in Richmond by enticing a Democrat to resign his office, a move that may well undercut Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his quest to expand Medicaid. Joining us to discuss all of this is Michael Pope, Northern Virginia reporter with WAMU 88.5. Michael's also political reporter for the Connection Newspapers. Hi, Michael.
MR. MICHAEL POPEHow you doing?
NNAMDIPretty good. Joining us by phone from Newport News, Va. is Quentin Kidd, professor of political science and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. Quentin Kidd, good to hear you.
PROF. QUENTIN KIDDGood to be with you.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. What is your opinion of the developments in politics in Virginia that is shocking the nation? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. David Brat's long-shot victory against Eric Cantor is literally unprecedented in American politics.
NNAMDIThe position of House majority leader was created in 1899. Since then, nobody who has held that position has ever lost a primary. This is a huge national story. It clearly was linked to national issues on one level. But, Quentin Kidd, starting with you, it was also an intensely local story about the importance of getting back to your congressional district and doing retail politics. What is your big takeaway from this story?
KIDDWell, I, I think that's right. You know, as I was falling asleep last night thinking about these results and how shocking they were, the voice of Tip O'Neill kept coming into my head, all politics is local. And I think that explains, in a few short words, what happened to Eric Cantor. As close as Washington is to his district, I think he managed to lose touch with the base of his own party in his district to the point where I don't think that his campaign or his staff or him had a sense of how strong the currents were right under what may have appeared to be a calm surface.
KIDDAnd we see how strong those currents were. He lost by double digits last night. And turnout in the 7th District primary last night was twice what turnout was in the 8th Democratic Primary in Northern Virginia. So turnout was okay. I think it was a really strong current. And I don't think he had any clue how strong that current was.
NNAMDIMichael Pope, your takeaway.
POPEWell, it does in fact prove that all politics is local. And, you know, I was trying to chat with Republicans this morning and get a sense of why they thought Eric Cantor lost. And when you talk to Republicans, it's kind of all over the map. No one really knows. I mean, it could have been that he spent so much time in leadership that he wasn't dealing with his constituents, that he wasn't at the Boy Scout meeting, and he wasn't at the Civic Association meeting.
POPEAnd, you know, he spent the morning at Starbucks on Capitol Hill rather than in his district. That's one explanation. And then there's also, you know, this strong undercurrent of the Tea Party that Quentin Kidd was just talking about. This, the 7th Congressional District is kind of ground zero for the Tea Party movement. And the part that I find particularly interesting about that is it wasn't all that long ago that we were talking about Eric Cantor being the Tea Party favorite to oust the incumbent Republican speaker who was...
POPE...John Boehner, who was, who was, you know, sort of seen by many Republicans as being the country club Republican, the Chamber of Commerce Republican. And Eric Cantor was the Tea Party guy who was going to oust the establishment Republican. You know, for people that are in the 7th Congressional District in the suburbs of Richmond, many people sort of viewed him -- Eric Cantor -- as kind of the establishment guy who was also Tea Party. And maybe the takeaway from this is that you can't do both, Kojo. You can't be Tea Party and establishment. You have to be one or the other.
NNAMDIA subject we'll be exploring more on Friday during the Politics Hour when our guest -- or one of our guests will be the head of the Richmond Tea Party. But, Quentin Kidd, when we think of local politics or paying -- taking advantage of, of making sure you take care of home, people tend to think only of constituent services. But local politics has a lot to do with understanding the local political temperature. Does it not?
KIDDYeah. I think that's right. I mean, so there -- I think, I think of constituency services as coming in two different forms. One form, your staff can largely do for you in your district offices, so Eric Cantor's district office in Culpeper, for example, or in Richmond. And that is taking care of the Social Security checks that get lost and the veterans' benefits that aren't coming like they need to be and things like that.
KIDDThere's another constituency service that the candidate or the office holder, him or herself, has to be a part of, and that is being in the district, like Michael Pope mentioned, you know, being at the Boy Scout's meeting, going to the local high school graduation, those sorts of things. And I think that's where Eric Cantor lost, you know, lost his way. I think he had -- and his staff had a good reputation for the normal kind of constituency service that we think about.
KIDDBut he himself, I think, missed out on a lot of opportunities to understand the pulse of the district, to really have his finger on the pulse by being in the district, going to those meetings, talking to people, hearing what they had to say. I think he got too caught up in running in his leadership job, and that caused him to be away from the district too much. And so when he did things like came out and supported the DREAM Act and then tried to sort of thread the needle and nuance that, his district didn't trust him because he hadn't been around enough talking to people. And, you know, I think that was really important in understanding what happened yesterday.
NNAMDIGlad you brought up the stuff about the DREAM Act because this was not a close race. Cantor lost to Dave Brat by 11 points in a race that actually had decent turnout. The immediate first blush take on this election result from the national media was to point to immigration as the issue that decided this race. Cantor's challenger repeatedly hammered away against him on the issue, talking about his alleged support for amnesty while Cantor also sent out flyers around the district touting his role in thwarting amnesty. But the dynamics within the Republican Party of Virginia are much more complex right now than most people are talking about. Isn't that right, Michael?
POPEThey're, they're pretty complex. And I'll tell you, last weekend, I was at the Republican Convention in Roanoke, which was viewed by many as a comeback for the establishment wing of the party. And then here, you know, this morning, my neck is kind of sore 'cause I've got whiplash here 'cause now we've got the other way around.
POPENow, now we've got the comeback of the Tea Party. So which is -- which of these forces is winning right now? You -- I guess you could make the argument that the convention was statewide, and so that probably demonstrates kind of a larger set of motivations than one congressional district. But you could also look at the congressional district as a sort of a petri dish for the politics of Virginia. So I think there are two different forces moving in opposite directions right now in the Old Dominion.
NNAMDIQuentin Kidd, how did all those currents and crosscurrents that I mentioned earlier impact the political environment right now?
KIDDWell, I think a lot of people in Virginia are scratching their head this morning, a lot of people in the political sort of the political classes are scratching their heads trying to figure out what this really means. What's the real meaning of it? And I think a lot of people are just saying, look, on Saturday, Republicans nominated -- by acclimation, I might point out. It wasn't -- they didn't even go through one round of voting. By acclimation, they selected Ed Gillespie -- if there ever was an institutional guy, it's Ed Gillespie -- to be their candidate for U.S. Senate against Mark Warner.
KIDDAnd then, just a few days later, they knock out, in stunning fashion, Eric Cantor from his office. I think a lot of people are trying to figure out what the terrain is. What's really going on? And I think Michael's right. There are two Republican parties in Virginia right now, like in many places in the country.
KIDDAnd those two Republican parties are constantly in a dance with one another. And every once in a while, one of them gets the upper hand in that dance over the other side. And I think that's really what's going on. They -- there's a lot that overlaps these two parties, but there's a lot that distinguish them, these two sides of the party, that distinguishes them. And we're seeing both of those play out in the span of four days in Virginia.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about recent political developments in Virginia -- dramatic developments -- give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Michael Pope, if you look at the issues that are polarizing Virginia politics right now at the state level, most of them don't seem directly to involve Congress, Democrats and Republicans fighting bitterly over transportation funding and Medicaid expansion. And those issues have also divided Republicans internally. Did those issues and the momentum within the GOP affect Cantor's race, you think?
POPEI think it's likely that there were two congressional issues that might have been at stake in that election. One is immigration, which we touched on, and, you know, partly there, you have to give the upper hand to the Tea Party challenger who really made Cantor look like he supported comprehensive immigration reform. And so the perception there certainly stuck with voters. The other, I think, probably played in a little bit to the politics of the Affordable Care Act.
POPEWhen the government shutdown happened, of course, the Tea Party set was really interested in, you know, making a -- wanting to make sure that the Affordable Care Act was challenged and, you know, replaced and repealed. And so I think what we're seeing with Cantor is that he was viewed by many people in his district as compromising and being part of the Washington inside crowd that's willing to strike a deal rather than stand on principle. So I think if there were two issues that were at the heart of the campaign and Cantor's loss, they would be immigration and the Affordable Care Act.
NNAMDIIn local news, Don Beyer won the crowded Democratic primary in the 8th Congressional District in Alexandria in the race to replace retiring Congressman Jim Moran. How did that race shake out over the last few weeks?
POPEWell, you mentioned it was crowded. You know, at one point, there were 13 candidates in the race. And by the time the ballots were printed, there were 10 candidates in the race. And even more dropped out. So on Election Day yesterday, there were seven candidates. That's still a pretty crowded race. Don Beyer ended up raising more than a million dollars and was very close to securing 50 percent of the vote. So it wasn't really close at all although there's a progressive Delegate Patrick Hope who really made a name for himself in the campaign and ended up in second place.
NNAMDIAt the beginning of the next Congress, Virginia will be represented by at least three freshman Congressmen, Quentin Kidd, Eric Cantor lost his primary, while Frank Wolf in the 10th District, including Loudoun and Fairfax Counties is retiring. By the way, Barbara Comstock will be the Republican candidate in that election. She won, Quentin, in a firehouse primary. What's the difference between a firehouse primary and the primary in which Eric Cantor lost last night?
KIDDWell, in a firehouse primary, everybody goes to one location, perhaps two locations, depending upon how the party decides to organize it. And they have a certain window of time that they go in and cast a vote. It's really run by the party more than it's run by the local election officials. I think of it as a more informal way of electing a candidate, but one that's more party oriented. And that, you know, can be important in a state where we don't have party registrations -- so you don't register by political party.
KIDDAnd I tend to think primaries are better for, just for encouraging participation than open primaries are better than firehouse primaries. And I would, I'd imagine turnout was much larger in the 7th Congressional District primary than it was in the firehouse primary in the 10th. I haven't looked at those numbers, but I'd guess the turnout was much larger.
NNAMDIEither way, Cantor's gone. Frank Wolf is going. Jim Moran is retiring. There's a lot of seniority and institutional power that the Commonwealth is losing. Will that end up hurting the region, Quentin?
KIDDWell, it could. In fact, there has been some chatter about this, that at a time when Virginia is becoming more prominent in national politics, much more a swing state, a lot of attention being paid to it, a lot of the, a lot of the seniority is essentially gone. You know, our senior senator has served one term. Our junior senator has served part of one term. Some of our longstanding members of Congress are retiring or have been defeated.
KIDDSo, you know, the most, the most senior politician, elected politician in Virginia right now might be somebody like Morgan Griffith. And, and you might, you know, on the Republican side, I mean there's some questions about who is the figurehead of the Republican Party right now. And it might be the Speaker of the House Bill Howell because, you know, the Republicans don't have -- Eric Cantor was, you know the senior, most important Republican leader right -- elected official in the state.
KIDDAnd so there's a lot of talk about that. Now, will it matter in the end, in a time when pork-barrel politics is frowned upon in Washington? Maybe less than it would have mattered years back when bringing home the bacon was really important. But it, nevertheless, will matter.
NNAMDII want to go this other issue before we go to the phones. So if you've called, stay on the line. We will get your calls. But there's so much to talk about. The number's 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with Quentin Kidd, professor of political science and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. And Michael Pope. He is Northern Virginia reporter with WAMU 88.5 and political reporter for The Connection Newspapers.
NNAMDIMichael, until about 8 o'clock last night, we were pretty sure that the biggest political story in Virginia was the showdown taking place over the commonwealth budget and whether Virginia will expand Medicaid. On Sunday, the Washington Post's Laura Vozzella broke the news that Democratic state Senator Phillip Puckett would resign, tilting the Senate into Republican control, at least temporarily.
NNAMDIThis move was controversial, to say the least. First, because it meant that there would be no Medicaid expansion in the commonwealth for up to 400,000 people, a major priority for Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. But also because Republicans appeared to have lured Puckett away the Senate by offering him and his daughter plum jobs. First question, for people who are not inside politics in Virginia, how can Republicans in the Senate offer an elected Democratic Senator a job?
POPEIt's been a heck of a week, hasn't it?
POPEWell, so the job that is at issue here is the tobacco commission, which is this group that's set up to allocate money that came from the tobacco settlement. And, you know, Republicans, I was talking to about his issue, felt like Senator Puckett was the ideal candidate. Not just because they got him out of the Senate, but because he has a background in banking. And…
NNAMDIYeah, but how could they be in a position to offer him the job?
POPEThe chairman of the tobacco commission is a Republican by the name of Terry Kilgore.
NNAMDIEnd of discussion?
POPEWell, if you're of the Republican Party, you, you know, changing the dynamics of the Senate would be something that's very important to you. And, in fact, they ended up with the upper hand, didn't they.
NNAMDIWell, Quentin Kidd, the other side of that coin, that ethical coin, so to speak, is people not being able to understand why it is that state Senator Puckett's daughter could not get a judgeship while he was in the Senate.
KIDDYeah, it's, I mean, I don't blame people for looking in on Virginia politics and scratching their heads and saying, I don't understand why that works. There's a longstanding practice. I don't think there's not a legal prohibition or there's not a legal restriction, but there's a longstanding practice of not appointing somebody to a judgeship who's related to a member of the Virginia Senate.
KIDDAnd, and if you were to be able to talk to Senator Puckett, former Senator Puckett, what you would hear him say is, I felt like I was getting out of the way of my daughter's career. That I was holding up my daughter's career and I wanted to get out of the way of that career, her career path, by resigning, I made it possible for her to be put on the, on this bench. But -- and I think a lot of people can feel sympathetic to that. It's that, it's that question of a potential job in the tobacco commission that, that really muddied the water here.
NNAMDIWell, he did not, ultimately, accept that job. But isn't also the question of timing?
KIDDIt is a question of timing. And I, and I think that's where the deal came in. Is that the, is that the Republicans on the Senate came and said, Look, this -- if you'll resign, we'll make sure to, you know, support your daughter's judgeship. And, I mean, this is, in some ways, old-fashioned horse trading that's going on here. And, and so long as things were done in the open, I don't think there were any laws broken. And that says a lot about ethics in Virginia and, and how little reform actually happed in ethics reform in the last general assembly session.
NNAMDIWell, Michael Pope, exactly how is this likely to affect the budget standoff in Richmond?
POPEVirginia is heading for its own fiscal cliff. So the deadline for a budget is at the end of this month when the new fiscal year starts. And so the situation we've got right now is that on Thursday of this week the general assembly is going to gavel into session and they are going to pass a budget that does not have Medicaid expansion. And they're going to send it to the governor. Now, the governor campaigned on the issue of expanding Medicaid. It's the top priority for him right now.
POPEAnd so he's gonna be handed this budget that does not have Medicaid expansion. Now, actually I ran into the governor last night at the Don Beyer victory event. And I asked him, "Are you going to use executive power to expand Medicaid?" He would not -- surprisingly, right -- he would not commit to using executive power. He said he was looking at all the options.
POPEBut then he launched into this very passionate defense of expanding Medicaid for 400,000 people who are low income. And it's very clear, even right now, that this is the governors top priority. And he is going to do whatever is in his power to make it happen. Now, he, he did also say last night, Kojo, that he was still hoping for, that the general assembly would put it in the budget. And even though that seems to be a moot point, he's still sort of publicly arguing that that's the strategy right now.
NNAMDISo this is not just a political football. We're talking about expanding Medicaid, which would extend coverage to 400,000 low-income Virginians. And I think that's what Monique, in Arlington, Va., would like to talk about. Monique, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MONIQUEAll right. Thank you, Kojo. Two or three things. First, the expression is all politics is local. What former Senator Puckett decided to do has not affected only just his district, but the entire state of Virginia. I'll get to that in a moment. Number two, just because an act by a public official is legal doesn't mean that it is ethical or moral. So certainly the ethics and the morality involved in the horse trading situation here, regarding Senator Puckett, they don't pass the smell test. And they don't pass the ethics and morality balancing test.
NNAMDIAnd your third point?
MONIQUEAnd I'm coming to that right now. My third and final point is, there's a balancing test here between former Senator Puckett, elevating the career path of his daughter over the healthcare needs of 400,000 Virginians.
NNAMDIQuentin Kidd, you said a lot of people would be able to understand him doing that, clearly Monique and maybe about 399,999 other people don't. What do you say?
KIDDYeah, well, it's a fair point. And, and Senator Puckett took, I mean, no end of grief. I mean, surely he knew that this, that this kind of backlash was coming. I guess what I was saying is if you, if you went into the mind of Senator Puckett -- and I heard him say this -- that it, what he was trying to do is get out of the way of the way of his daughters career. And it was almost like he didn't pay attention or didn't pay enough attention to the effects of his actions on, on Medicaid expansion and all this.
KIDDI mean he went on to say, you know, I still support Medicaid expansion. But clearly his action have made Medicaid expansion less likely in Virginia than it was before he did what he did. And, and he'll, he'll probably -- he'll pay for that for years to come, I'm sure.
NNAMDIMonique, of course I didn't mean to suggest that you are one of the 400,000 low-income Virginias who qualify for Medicaid. I was just trying to subtract you as one person. It was stupid. Democrats pulled off a sweep of statewide offices last year, even if there were squeakers. They won the governorship, the lieutenant governorship, and attorney general, along with control of the Senate. Michael Pope, now observers are saying they won't really be able to achieve any of Gov. Terry McAuliffe's priorities. Where does that leave the commonwealth for the next three years?
POPEWell, it's always good to be governor, don't forget. And, you know, the attorney general…
NNAMDIThe words rock and hard place come to mind. Go ahead.
POPEThe, the attorney general has taken some actions, as attorney general on gay marriage and, and some other things that, I mean, he has actually been able to use the power of the office to accomplish things that he campaigned on, things the Democrats believe in. So just because they're stuck on Medicaid doesn't mean there aren't other issues on the table. Although, Medicaid is sort of stealing the spotlight right now.
KIDDYeah, and I, and I would also say, let's remember, Bob McDonnell had a stunning failure in his first legislative session over privatizing ABC Stores and a few other items. He had a, he had a pretty tough first session. And it took him three years, but he did manage to accomplish a big, public policy win his last legislative session with the transportation deal. And it looks to me like Terry McAuliffe's governorship might be shaping up to look like a Bob McDonnell governorship when it comes to his relationship with general assembly and the ability to get big things done.
KIDDAnd I would agree with Michael. It's a lot of little steps and maybe not many long balls need to be thrown if the long balls are simply going to be impossible for somebody to catch. And maybe it's better for McDonnell -- or for McAuliffe to pursue a ground game and, and achieve little victories here and there that, that can ultimately amount to something important over the long term.
NNAMDIQuentin Kidd is a professor of political science and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. Quentin Kidd, thank you for joining us.
KIDDGood to be with you.
NNAMDIMichael Pope is a Northern Virginia reporter with WAMU 88.5 and political reporter for the Connection Newspapers. Michael, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, The Science of Hunger. New research challenging long-held assumptions about why we crave food. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.