Eric Cantor’s Loss: A Pro-Life Democrat’s Take

GOP majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss to Tea Party challenger David Brat has shocked the leadership of the Republican Party. It ought to shock Democratic Party leaders, too. Among other things, it ought to spur our party toward a savvy recalculating of the politics of abortion. A smart recalculation should mean more welcome and more support for pro-life Democrats.

Cantor outspent Brat almost 12 to 1. He had the support of leading and prominent Republicans from around the country. He was long-time incumbent, with a well-honed campaign organization, and as the number two power in the House of Representatives had enormous inside-the-Beltway clout. Yet he still lost – and lost handily by double digits. So, what happened and what’s the lesson for Democrats?

Some explanation for Cantor’s loss can be blamed on Cantor’s inattention to his district. Fair enough, but that analysis is also overblown. There’s no indication that Cantor skipped the usual district events; no sense that he skimped on constituent services, or failed to bring home the bacon. Likewise, I think the analysts are wrong who blame Cantor’s loss on the immigration issue. The immigration issue was more a marker for voter anger, not it’s cause. No, the best explanation for Cantor’s loss is that the electorate is angry. Especially in the heartland and hinterland, there’s a smoldering resentment against the elitism of Washington, Hollywood, and Wall Street. That, more than anything else, is what motivated primary voters against Cantor. And, here’s the important kicker, it’s not just GOP voters who are feeling that resentment at elites this year. It’s shared by populist independents and many Democrats. It’s the dominant political mood of the country.

Advocates for abortion rights are perceived as part of these same tony elites by the angry populist voters of 2014. And, those populist perceptions are accurate. Support for abortion is an elitist issue. Poll after poll shows that it’s the wealthiest Americans, those with post-graduate degrees, those living on the East and West Coasts where support for abortion is strongest. Here’s a relevant poll by Gallup that illustrates just how accurate this year’s angry populists are in seeing those who advocate abortion as elitist.

The populist anger against Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood elites that took down Eric Cantor this week, will roil against Democrats in the 2014 general elections in November. And, that angry sentiment shows no signs of moderating any time soon. It will be a major sentiment of the American electorate in the 2016 presidential election. It is not confined to the Tea Party, but is rather a visceral sentiment that affects large swaths of the electorate, perhaps with special intensity in the Midwest, Mountain West, and South. Need I mention its intensity in crucial national battleground states like Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, and so on? If Democrats are going to retake the House, retake critical governerships and state legislatures, if they’re going to hold on to the Senate, and if they want to win the presidency in 2016, then they must come to grips with this sweeping populist sentiment.

Populist anger at Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood is less about money and more about culture and values. Note carefully, for example, just how much it is that support for abortion skews with religion in the previously mentioned Gallup poll. So, however much it might be an important argument for other reasons, Democrats cannot effectively address rising populist anger by merely campaigning on the topic of income inequality or stirring up outrage over the wealthy 1%. Democrats need to take up the populist argument at the level of values and culture. One critically important step in that direction that’s needed is to open the party to pro-life voters.

Another recent Gallup poll that puts numbers behind this advice.

As the polling shows, Americans are evenly split on being pro-life and pro-choice, with neither label crossing the 50% line. Moreover, especially given the rising number of pro-choice voters in Republican ranks, hope for the Democrats winning a national election requires wooing a goodly chunk of pro-life voters. We cannot win if we make support for abortion rights a litmus test. Considered from the angle of the states and Congressional elections, this is even more true. Recapturing the House and holding the Senate requires progress for the Democrats in the Midwest, which is the region of the country where pro-life support is the highest. Success for the Democrats depends on the party moderating the image of its being perceived as the party of the elites – as the party of Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood. And, importantly, the party’s center-staging of Emily’s List, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood is a significant part of the problem with those optics.

Unless the Democratic Party finds ways to address the rising populist sentiment that brought down Eric Cantor this week, its prospects for 2014, and increasingly for 2016, are compromised. Making more room for pro-life voters (already 28% of the party’s base) in the Democratic tent can only help. Welcoming and supporting pro-life Democratic candidates can only help. We’re not the party of Upper West Side salons, Malibu mansions, and K Street boardrooms. Right?