Lightning in Virginia, and the low thunder of a court settlement

By Tom Baxter

Political lightning can be tricky to judge. You can’t always tell from the following thunder how close it has struck.

Last Tuesday evening there was a bright flash over Virginia, and the thunder that followed it reverberated across the country. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat at the hands of an unheralded college economics professor, David Brat, was quickly pronounced the greatest political upset, ever. By many standards — the difference in money spent, polls, the fact that a majority leader had never been defeated in a primary — there was justification for that claim.

But a truly great upset requires a great politician to be brought down, and as the rumblings continued through the week, it became clear how far short of that mark Cantor fell. Alarm bells should have been been clanging back in early May, when Cantor got booed and failed to get his handpicked delegate elected chairman at the district Republican convention.  He threw a lot of money into the race after that, but he never seems to have focused his attention on what he had to do. Cantor lost for a combination of reasons, some of which speak to national and even global trends. But he was also personally responsible for his loss.

Nor does Brat come off as the most unlikely of challengers on closer inspection, though he was a long shot without question. Brat’s teaching position at Randolph-Macon College is funded through the charitable foundation of North Carolina-based BB&T Corp., whose former CEO, John A. Allison,  is, like the Koch brothers, a devotee of Ayn Rand. In effect Brat was a modest investment, among the millions spent on think tanks, political action committees, college foundations and activist groups, who came in really, really big. He was not a pure accident.

What the lightning flash did expose was the remarkable fragility of the current Republican congressional leadership, founded as it is on a base grown increasingly suspicious of politicians with any tenure at all.

The Cantor loss put a special onus on Jack Kingston to avoid any semblance of Washington business as usual in his runoff campaign for the U.S. Senate against self-described outsider David Perdue. The story of Kingston’s association with a Palestinian businessman-fundraiser, convicted of music piracy and facing deportation, seems to get worse as it goes along, but so far has had no effect on his numbers.
When some of those numbers come from the same Republican pollster who told Cantor he was a mile ahead, however, that can’t be entirely comforting.
Friday afternoon, a low and faintly ominous rumble emanated from the vicinity of an Atlanta courtroom. It was nothing like the thunderclap over Virginia, but there may have been some lightning in it.

As quietly as possible, the state settled with three former Ethics Commission employees for a package deal totaling $1.8 million, bringing the total spent to resolve the case which revolved around an investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign spending to $3 million, counting the award given to former commission director Stacey Kalberman.

That’s pricey, but the political cost to Deal of letting three lawsuits spin out through the election year would have been unacceptably high. Voters can have short memories, especially in the summer, and the memory of this episode will have faded by football season.

Still, Deal has reason to fear the thunder.

In retrospect, a lot of things Cantor did, like holding a fundraiser in a Washington Starbucks on Election Day, made him look hopelessly out of touch. But Deal sounded no less oblivious to the public mood when he suggested in a recent interview that the definition of what the state calls a “whistle-blower” might need to be tightened, after what he thought a high judgment in the Kalberman case.

Cantor’s primary pratfall was a much different race from Deal’s general election contest with Carter here in Georgia. But the lightning flash over Virginia revealed a brooding discontent with politicians grown too fond of the perquisites of power that is palpable across the political landscape.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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