How the Media (and Silent Conservative PACs) Made the Cantordammerung Happen

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 11 2014 12:17 PM

How the Media (and Silent Conservative PACs) Made the Cantordammerung Happen

Shortly after Eric Cantor’s primary defeat, BuzzFeed and the Wall Street Journal hit the presses with similar stories about a meaning-laden dinner of conservative activists in Virginia.  “A small contingent of right-wing elites was gathered for an intimate dinner party at the Great Falls, Va., home of ForAmerica Chairman Brent Bozell when returns first started trickling in from Rep. Eric Cantor’s primary race,” reported McKay Coppins. The WSJ continued:

Minutes later, everyone in the group – including prominent conservatives Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Mike Needham of Heritage Action, Andy Roth of the Club for Growth, David Bossie of Citizens United and Greg Mueller of CRC Public Relations — was frantically checking their phones for updates. Dinner would have to wait. The revolution they had been waiting for in a primary season filled with victories by the Republican establishment had finally arrived.
Advertisement

The passivity of the verbs—“waiting for”—means something. One reason reporters cottoned on to the conservative power-dinner was that Brent Bozell, whose “ForAmerica” association will probably baffle liberal readers unfamiliar with the conservative cosmos, quickly talked about it. So did Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin, who told me after the dinner that “the grassroots in the district deserve the credit” for beating Cantor. Even at the table, there was some disagreement about how much to gloat about the win.

That’s because national conservative groups didn’t really go in for David Brat, not like they did in other Tea Party races. In a delightful recap, T. Becket Adams points out just who is crowing about the Brat win but did nothing to alter the race—FreedomWorks, the Madison Project. Outside groups spent less than $5,000 on Brat, and all of that came from the We Deserve Better PAC’s ad buy. Here’s the ad:

It’s not like Brat rejected outside help. In January, in one of his first interviews as a candidate, Brat told National Review’s Betsy Woodruff that he’d been courting outside groups that were “as big as they get.” I’ve confirmed that he did meet with national (D.C.-based groups) that opted not to jump into the race.

Here’s the irony: Had they done so, it’s not clear Brat could have won. (Some of them stayed out for this reason, as I'll explain below.) He benefited from stealth, something that big-headed political reporters (hello!) might have thought impossible in the era of Politico and #datajournalism and social media. He did this by working local activists and getting tons of free exposure in conservative media, which the press doesn’t pay as much attention to as it does the peacocking “Tea Party” groups.

You don’t need to do much sleuthing to find this. Brat’s Facebook page collected all of his media and endorsements. After he announced his run, he put up photos of his “announcement tour,” then directed voters to his first radio interview (on Glenn Beck’s network). He kept it up, giving specific directions on how to meet him and where, announcing when a conservative (like Ann Coulter) endorsed him. ForAmerica, Bozell’s group, endorsed him on Feb. 19, which directed social media traffic but not the money that could have alerted the media. Breitbart.com started covering him around that time; Breitbart’s Jonathan Strong could boast, on election night, that the site was one of the few that consistently covered the race. Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, Beltway-based radio hosts, aggressively promoted Brat; Ingraham appeared at a rally for Brat during his final push.

Local media caught on to Brat by the spring. The Chesterfield Observer published an April 23 story taking Brat seriously, and covering how he blasted Cantor as a “corporate congressman” and amnesty supporter. (Brat avoided the pitfills of some “anti-immigration” candidates by making the issue entirely about economics, never mentioning culture or race.)

But the Beltway media almost ignored the race. Politico, whose Rosslyn-based reporters are (depending on traffic) less than two hours up the road from Cantor’s district, ran one January story that rehashed what National Review had reported. On April 23, Politico reported that Cantor was going on the air against a candidate “he is very likely to beat.” Jake Sherman, one of the best reporters covering the politics of Congress, followed with an April 27 story from Richmond that covered the intrigue in the district and included an interview with Brat and some details about his campaign spiel. (The story revealed plenty. "Asked if he spoke to [Rep. Jeb] Hensarling," wrote Sherman, "whom many see as Cantor’s inside-the-Beltway rival, Brat first asked whether the comment would be on the record, and then said, 'No comment on that.' ")*

Yet at no point in the primary did National Journal run an interview with Brat. (Roll Call’s Emma Dumain talked to Brat on May 28.) The New York Times, as David Joachim reported today, had talked to Brat in February; Jeremy Peters interviewed him for a story about primary challenges to GOP leaders. The article ran online; Brat did not appear in the print version of the paper until making A1 today.

And the story never really reached the level of the Senate primaries in the South, races that tractor-beamed in national reporters looking for Tea Party upsets, vetting candidates. On May 14, Politico’s Morning Money newsletter directed readers to the front-page Washington Post profile of Cantor’s race, written by Jenna Portnoy and Robert Costa. On June 2, Politico had another scoop—a “red meat” mailing Cantor was sending out, portraying himself as a warrior against “amnesty,” in the hopes of crushing Brat. Yesterday, Sherman, embedded in Richmond for the election, talked to the candidate. Elsewhere in Politico, readers were told that Brat, a professor with a long academic record and a public email address he checked and answered, was “mostly a mystery” until his win. 

Yes, sure, fine, every primary season produces a few candidates who talk big and explode on the launchpad. Conservative talk radio is full of these guys—there’s a lot of airtime, after all, so why not fill it with the guy with a Facebook page and some ideas for the school board? Cantor had dispatched primary challengers in 2010, at the apogee of the Tea Party. No one will remember the name of John Boehner’s 2014 primary challenger (J.D. Winteregg), but he had a viral ad, and got conservative media coverage, on his way to being crushed.

The difference in Virginia—as the press is only finding out now—is that Cantor’s campaign had no idea how to crush a grassroots challenger. Its attempt to humble opposition in the local GOP (which worked for the establishment in Iowa) backfired. Its ridiculous TV ads against Brat, attacking him as a “liberal college professor,” backfired. (Luckily for him, the press largely covered the ads as Cantor being aggressive, not Cantor taking a swing, missing, and tumbling into an open manhole.)

And this is a huge reason why Brat won. He caught Cantor napping. He caught the media napping. Even after Cantor woke up, and started making the classic mistake of the front-runner (boost your no-name opponent's ID** with negative ads), the media stirred a little, then hit "snooze" again.

"We’ve seen that once outside groups get into a race, the establishment comes in hard-charging and smears and hazes the challenger,” said Daniel Horowitz, policy director of the Madison Project, which like every conservative group did not jump into Brat-Cantor. “We wanted to do something different here. We helped a little in the background, but David took it to the goal line.” 

That's not quite what Brat told me or other reporters when asked about the outside groups. "Everybody just wants to see the polls," he sighed to the NYT in that buried February interview. Whether you buy the spin or not, the lesson of this race is: Pay attention.

*I substantially reworked this graf after Sherman pointed out the April 27 story. Mea culpa—I had searched a number of publications for their coverage, and a run through Politico didn't turn up Sherman's piece. It only turned up an April 28 email roundup that quoted it. Extra bonus mea culpa—this was weeks before I bothered covering the race.

**It's hard to overstate how stupid the Cantor ads were. Virginia is an open primary state; there was no Democratic race to keep partisans on their side of the line. And Cantor put ads on the air attacking Brat for working with former Gov., now-Sen. Tim Kaine, the former mayor of Richmond, incredibly popular with local Democrats. Now they're whining that some Democrats might have crossed over to vote for Brat!

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.