The moment it became clear House Majority Leader Eric Cantor would suffer a shocking primary loss to David Brat, reporters began speculating about what the result would mean for Republican candidates across the country. Bob talks with North Star Opinion Research President Whit Ayers who says the media is once again extrapolating too much from too little.
BOB GARFIELD: House majority leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in a Virginia Republicans primary, to little-known David Brat, has fed several broad media narratives, for instance, that it signals a resurgence of the very recently down and out Tea Party.
CHRIS MATTHEWS/MSNBC: After a string of defeats this year, the Tea Party defeated Eric Cantor last night. It’s his biggest win yet. They didn’t just give him a scare. They blew him out.
BOB GARFIELD: And that no incumbent is or shall ever be safe.
ERIC BOLLING/FOX NEWS: The people of Virginia delivered a fatal blow to the very heart of the Washington elite class, the establishment class, who brazenly thought their terms would never end, no matter how bad things got.
BOB GARFIELD: And that it reveals Republicans’ rage against immigration reform.
CHUCK TODD: It used to be the debt, then it was healthcare, now it’s immigration.
WHIT AYRES: That interpretation is flat wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: Whit Ayres is the founder and president of North Star Opinion Research, which provides strategic advice to Republicans candidates for office. He said that those conclusions are extrapolating way too much from way too little, especially on immigration.
WHIT AYRES: Eric Cantor never voted on a comprehensive immigration reform package. He never put together a comprehensive immigration reform package. He never said anything about a comprehensive immigration reform package.
On the other hand, Tuesday saw the victory of Lindsey Graham. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham promoted immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, and in 2008 defeated an opponent who ran against him on that issue by 2 to 1. He turned around in 2012 and 13 and authored, along with his colleagues, a comprehensive immigration reform plan. He was a member of the gang of eight that pushed it through the Senate. And he had six people running against him this year, largely on that issue. He defeated the second place candidate by 41 percentage points.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh and, by the way, national polling shows that what percentage of Republicans actually support some level of immigration reform?
WHIT AYRES: Seventy percent of Republicans support an earned path to some form of legal status, and that has been a consistent number over several years.
BOB GARFIELD: So a political event happens, and I am a reporter and I – one of my responsibilities is to let my audience know what it all means. I examine the particulars and try to divine some sort of larger meaning. And you can’t blame me for that. But we’re talking about such a small sample size in a Republican primary, in a single congressional district. What are my chances of drawing conclusions and actually having them be right?
WHIT AYRES: Slim and none. The outcome of one primary race in one congressional district in one state says very little about other races in other states with different candidates and different environments. It would have been nice to see a story on Tuesday night that said anytime a political outcome is this stunning and unexpected the seeds of a defeat were laid sometime before. It will take us a while to figure out exactly what those seeds are, where immigration reform really was a dominant issue.
BOB GARFIELD: What was particularly striking about the definitiveness of the reporting on the Cantor story is that an equal amount of definitiveness was applied to a race a few days earlier, when Mitch McConnell easily defeated a Tea Party favorite opponent, at which point the press declared the resurgence of the traditional GOP and the death of the Tea Party. [LAUGHS] I guess we can’t take those conclusions any more seriously than the opposite ones being drawn into the Cantor loss.
WHIT AYRES: We have some people who seem to have a compulsive desire to over-interpret a single event as a long-term trend. There is, in the Republican Party, a lot of energy behind the Tea Party cause. There is a lot of energy and desire in the Republican Party to be an effective governing party. And those tensions are still being worked out.
BOB GARFIELD: One final thing: The Kentucky race where Mitch McConnell prevailed over a Tea Party insurgent, and that was used to conclude that the Tea Party is on the skids, and then in this case, in the Virginia race, Cantor’s loss led to the narrative that the Tea Party is, once again, in ascendency. David Brat may have shared a lot of ideology with so-called Tea Party favorites, but he wasn't embraced or funded by any of the major Tea Party organizations. How careless have we been in just throwing around the term, Tea Party, without further definition?
WHIT AYRES: Pretty careless. David Brat rejected the Tea Party label the night he won. And major Tea Party groups hadn’t even gone in to support him. It seems to be used as a sort of all-purpose label for any kind of outcome that seems surprising, where anyone that might conceivably be seen as a part of the Republican governing establishment loses.
BOB GARFIELD: Whit, thank you very much.
WHIT AYRES: My pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Whit Ayres is founder and president of North Star Opinion Research.