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Real lesson in Eric Cantor's loss:
Beware conventional wisdom

By Sally Kohn
updated 6:16 PM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
Dave Brat's upset primary victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia joins a long list of political table turning at the polls. The most famous was in 1948 when Democratic President Harry Truman won the election <!-- -->
</br>over Republican Thomas Dewey. The Chicago Daily Tribune initially called the race for the New York governor. Click for more political upsets. Dave Brat's upset primary victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia joins a long list of political table turning at the polls. The most famous was in 1948 when Democratic President Harry Truman won the election
over Republican Thomas Dewey. The Chicago Daily Tribune initially called the race for the New York governor. Click for more political upsets.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn says Eric Cantor's surprising loss doesn't mean what you think it means
  • What suffered in this race is the shell of our political system, now grinding to a halt, Kohn says
  • Cantor wasn't conservative enough for base but too extreme for everyone else, Kohn says

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Conventional wisdom can be a dangerous thing.

The media and political chattering class are rushing to explain how Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor could lose his primary election to a relatively unknown challenger. No one saw it coming. And apparently it's not enough to just bask in the shock. We need answers.

But this loss is not just about immigration reform or even the tea party. It's about the insanely unpopular Republican leadership in Congress and one of its figureheads, who increasingly made little legislative progress for America or for his district.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

Yes, in the waning hours of the campaign, immigration was a key issue. But a poll taken on election night shows that fully 72% of Cantor's very Republican district support immigration reform including a path to citizenship.

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted Tuesday night, and followed up with a blog post today, confirming that Cantor's loss had nothing to do with immigration reform -- though conservatives would happily exploit that narrative. Indeed, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a far stronger and more consistent supporter of immigration reform, handily won his primary last night in a much more conservative voting bloc.

Spreading the myth that Cantor lost because of his (wavering, undefined and weak) support for immigration reform not only does harm to the truth but serves to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which immigration reform is now dead in Congress. It need not be and should not be if voters have any real say in our country -- or if Republicans hope to show leadership on our nation's challenges and win over the future of the American electorate.

But alas, this thinking reflects what really suffered in this race: The shell of our political system, already dreadfully hobbled by Republican intransigence, will further grind to a halt.

Source: Eric Cantor to step down July 31
Chaos at Cantor headquarters after loss
Gergen: Cantor loss signals lose of hope

This is also not necessarily, as noted, because Cantor's challenger Dave Brat was backed by the tea party. Brat was overlooked and brushed aside by most of the national tea party infrastructure -- they hardly showed up. Brat himself Tuesday night on Fox News boasted himself as a traditional Republican. Certainly Brat was supported by local tea party enthusiasts, but he was not exactly waving nor wrapping himself in their Gadsden ("Don't Tread on Me") flag.

Arguably, the reasons for Cantor's demise are more subtle -- and ultimately hold even more danger for the GOP and the nation. As Brian Beutler wrote Wednesday for New Republic, Cantor had largely abandoned his constituents in favor of growing his national profile.

Remember that Cantor had radically undermined disaster funding just before a surprising and deadly earthquake rocked his own district. And Cantor was too busy trying to slash all government funding to use any constructively for the other need of his constituents.

Meanwhile on issue after issue, there was a sense that voters couldn't trust Cantor -- because he, like his party, constantly flip-flopped on every issue in a vain attempt to placate his increasingly vocal right flank.

Beyond that, there's a conflation of gripes here.

Conservative Republicans were increasingly frustrated by GOP leadership in general and Cantor in specific, not courting and honoring the more ideologically entrenched voices within their rank. At the same time, Americans of all political stripes -- including arguably moderate Republicans -- were increasingly frustrated by a do-nothing Republican Party solely committed to political grandstanding while utterly refusing to solve any of the nation's pressing problems.

And this is where the Republicans -- not to mention the good of our country --- are really in long-term danger. We need (at least two) political parties in the United States that wrestle over the big challenges and needs of Americans and, yes, at times actually pass legislation and get things done. Voters are extraordinarily frustrated that's not happening, and they rightly blame the gridlock on Republicans.

It will now only get worse.

Absolutely no one, not even Republican voters, likes what this Republican Congress is doing to this country. Cantor wasn't conservative enough for the increasingly extremist Republican base but was simultaneously too extreme for the mainstream of voters.

Now his party will move further to the right and away from responsible leadership. That's bad for Republicans and bad for America.

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