Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Examining the implications of the Eric Cantor upset

Published: Sunday, June 15 2014 12:12 a.m. MDT

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, leaves a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

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A tea party upstart defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a one of the biggest upsets in U.S. political history. We look at the ramifications.

What does the Cantor defeat mean for national politics and issues like immigration reform?

Pignanelli: "You can't use tact with a congressman! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!", said Henry Brooks Adams in 1907.

Space aliens had as much to do with the Cantor defeat as an organized tea party effort. Having communicated with humans who live in Virginia and were following the race, I learned this election was a classic example of an important official who lost touch with constituents angry with the federal government. (Cantor's opponent, David Brat, is an articulate libertarian professor, not a typical tea party activist.)

But a lazy political media, and a lethargic Cantor campaign, traveled the easy route and blamed the tea party. So this flawed analysis is now conventional wisdom. In the short term, it's bad news because ultraconservatives are emboldened and pragmatic incumbents are spooked. Needed reforms in immigration, taxation and entitlement programs will be delayed — but are not dead.

However, it's good news in the long term. Political analysts will reaffirm that officials who dare to be leaders on controversial issues but have a strong grass-roots campaign will prevail. This was well demonstrated by Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012 and this year by Sens. Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. The more time and effort elected officials spend with their constituents explaining problems and offering solutions, the greater likelihood there is of actual resolution — especially in immigration reform.

Republicans are in a quandary. Satisfying the tea party by abandoning immigration reform assures the presidency in 2016 is lost and any chance to hold control of the Senate.

Webb: One defeat does not make a trend, and plenty of other candidates who support reasonable immigration reform won primary contests. Immigration didn’t defeat Cantor. Complacency did. He became so important and so busy, and had won so many easy elections, that he didn’t pay attention to his voters, and it cost him his job.

If spineless Republicans become immobilized by the tea party, they will accomplish nothing over the next year and will ensure Hillary Clinton becomes president.

Any implications for Utah?

Pignanelli: Locally, right-wing activists will increase the drumbeat against Medicaid expansion and potential tax increases for transportation projects. Further, the Cantor election was more about frustration with the federal government (i.e. Feds cannot provide basic health care for veterans?) and clueless officials.

Ambitious politicos will intensify their deliberations on whether they can accomplish a Cantorlike defeat against an incumbent. But Utah was first in the country with a surprise tea party coup against Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010, and few federal or state officials have taken anything for granted since then. Indeed, those who did were ousted in conventions.

Webb: Utah is vastly different from Virginia, and support for immigration reform is much stronger here. Any Utah representative who uses Cantor’s defeat as a reason not to address immigration reform needs to show some backbone. Utah voters support good immigration reform. No Utah politicians need to be defeated by single-issue opponents if they do the basics: connect with their districts, perform excellent constituent services, stay in touch and avoid becoming creatures of Washington.

On another topic, gun violence is back in the news big-time with President Barack Obama making impassioned pleas for stronger gun control. Any chance of congressional action on guns?

Pignanelli: A bipartisan congressional resolution honoring Obama for his visionary leadership has more chance of passage than any legislation that contains a whiff of offense against the Second Amendment.

Webb: Obama won’t win tough gun legislation because Congress knows that gun violence is only in small part about guns. Gun violence is complicated. It’s about family and societal dysfunction, mental health system breakdowns, generational poverty and children growing up fatherless.

Obama is outraged by shootings in schools, which generate enormous publicity. But in just one recent six-day period, from May 30 to June 4, 12 deaths by gunfire occurred in Chicago, Obama’s hometown. Chicago has tough gun control laws. In May alone, Chicago experienced 43 homicides.

Overall, crime and violence continue to decline nationally despite, or perhaps because of, 300 million guns floating about the country. Obama seems to want a symbolic victory, a political statement, something he can point to as his legacy, despite the reality that gun legislation won’t change much.

I don’t agree with the radical gun lobby. Gun laws ought to be common sense and we ought to do our absolute best to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people. But I’m tired of politicians who have no interest in solving the country’s big problems wringing their hands and demanding simplistic solutions every time an isolated senseless act occurs.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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