Dave Helling: Eric Cantor’s primary defeat holds lessons for Heartland politicians

06/16/2014 11:42 AM

06/16/2014 4:19 PM

Political hotshots still are scratching their heads over newcomer Dave Brat’s stunning double-digit GOP primary defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.

What happened?

There are theories. Arrogance, perhaps. A bad campaign. Immigration. Talk radio. A tea party district. Democrats voting in the primary. Maybe all of the above.

We don’t know whether Brat’s strategy is exportable to other races. Statewide campaigns — U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts vs. Milton Wolf in Kansas, for example — are much more complicated than House races. A House campaign is more like running for mayor, with local voters and local concerns.

Still, Brat’s upset is a reminder that the most interesting political contests this year will take place in House primaries. Public anger at Congress is well-known, but we see it most clearly in House primary races, largely because gerrymandering has destroyed two-party competition in all but a handful of places.

Think Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver is a shoo-in? He has four opponents in the primary in Missouri’s 5th District. Rep. Sam Graves in Missouri’s 6th District has three in the GOP race. Rep. Vicky Hartzler has a Republican primary opponent in Missouri’s 4th District.

OK, the challengers in those races may be long shots. But what about Todd Tiahrt, the former congressman facing incumbent Rep. Mike Pompeo in the Kansas 4th District GOP primary? Both candidates have cash and experience, and they don’t like each other. There will be blood before Aug. 5.

We should also keep an eye on Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp in the sprawling Kansas 1st District.

Huelskamp is a tea party favorite. He’s a persistent thorn in the side for both parties — he made the GOP House leadership so mad it kicked him off the House Agriculture Committee.

His primary opponent is Alan LaPolice, a war veteran, one-time actor, teacher, farmer. He offers a Republicanism rooted in a Nancy Kassebaum tradition, “a congressman who believes in working together to get the job done,” his website says.

His top priority? Reclaim a Kansas seat on the Ag Committee.

In today’s polarized politics, LaPolice’s approach seems quaint. He, too, is a long shot.

It’s possible, though, that rural Kansas voters will wonder why their current congressman would rather appear on Fox News than, you know, work on farm policy.

Eric Cantor lost in part because he worried more about his national profile than the people of his district. In August, we’ll see if Tim Huelskamp was watching.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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