How to Beat a ‘Safe’ Incumbent

Sometimes a politician’s own success sows the seeds of his destruction. That appears to be the case with U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, ousted in Tuesday’s primary election by an upstart tea party candidate.


It is a cautionary tale for powerful congressmen and state legislators whose national or statewide responsibilities and aspirations take control of their careers. After a lot of easy elections, they start to take their constituents and their office for granted, forgetting they have to win their franchise anew every time they face re-election.

Sometimes, just when politicians are at the pinnacle of power, they are at their most vulnerable.

I’m no expert on Virginia politics, but based on conservations with people watching the race, it wasn’t immigration or even David Brat that defeated Cantor. He defeated himself by becoming a national politician, a creature of Washington, with an enormous workload that kept him from paying sufficient attention to his constituents. Certainly, he spent a lot of money on the race, flooding the airwaves with TV and radio spots. But he didn’t do the nitty-gritty, time-consuming work, meeting with local officials, business and civic leaders, holding town meetings, listening to his constituents.

Usually, politicians in Cantor’s position avoid strong intra-party competition, and thus they cruise to victory after victory. But once in a while, a solid competitor gets into the race who can connect with voters, and they are in trouble.

Former Sen. Bob Bennett underestimated that anti-incumbent sentiment in 2010. Sen. Orrin Hatch wasn’t about to make the same mistake in 2012, so he spent two years re-connecting with voters.

Here’s a formula to upset an incumbent: Find someone in a very safe district, maybe in a leadership position, who wins election after election. Chances are, that incumbent hasn’t campaigned hard for several years, hasn’t connected with voters, and may not even be well known among voters. Find a solid candidate of the same party and go after the incumbent.