WASHINGTON — A few blocks from the office of House majority leader Eric Cantor sits the National Archives, with its motto for all to see: “What is Past is Prologue.” Cantor must have seen it countless times. He may have even thought about it as he watched fellow Republicans fall victim to Tea Party insurgents.
But on Tuesday, the day of his historic defeat in a Republican Party primary, he was seen in a Capitol Hill branch of Starbucks, not home in suburban Richmond. His plan was to arrive back in the district in time for a victory party — one that never came, as he was felled by little-known David Brat.
Just as Cantor failed to heed the warning on the Archives, he seemed to ignore the political maxim that every member of Congress is supposed to follow: Know thy voter.
Indeed, since the Tea Party movement began threatening mainstream Republicans, the insurgents’ biggest victories have come at the expense of politicians who were perceived to have forgotten their hometowns. Richard Lugar lost a 2012 primary in Indiana amid a growing perception that he had become a Virginia resident. Some of the Utah Republicans who ousted Senator Bob Bennett in 2010 complained that he too had lost touch with the folks back home.
By contrast, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell did not take any chances this year in dispatching his Tea Party challenger, Matt Bevin, in last month’s Kentucky primary. McConnell showed up at local Republican club meetings all over his state, attacked Bevin aggressively, and even secured an uneasy alliance with Senator Rand Paul, after McConnell recognized that the once-insurgent senator had become the guiding voice of his state’s Republican Party. Even as detractors continue to paint him as a Washington insider, many of McConnell’s television advertisements are individually tailored to highlight the senator’s connections to Kentucky’s four distinct regions.
“Basically the common theme is by the time they realize they’re in trouble, it’s too late. They were caught napping,” said Fergus Cullen, former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, referring to ousted incumbents. “[House Speaker John] Boehner, [Senator Lindsey] Graham, McConnell did what they needed to do early in the process and nipped potential problems in the bud before they could amount to anything.”
In Massachusetts, Senator Edward J. Markey has taken a similar approach. The Democrat won a special election last year to replace John F. Kerry, despite suggestions that Markey — over nearly four decades in the House — had become increasingly tethered to his home in Chevy Chase, Md. To avoid drawing a serious challenger in this year’s election, Markey made a point of showing up at as many small-town ribbon-cutting events and veterans parades as his schedule would allow, and then sending out notices to the press. He may not convince everyone that he’s still the same humble son of a milkman from Malden who had never set foot in Washington until his 1976 House election, but his Senate seat is considered one of the safest in the country this year.
Of course, perception is not always reality. Many “hometown” members of Congress still spend their weekends shopping at grocery stores in Washington suburbs. Even Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., the man who invented the most famous Washington axiom that “all politics is local,” was known to enjoy spending some of his recess time in Bal Harbour, Fla.