House Majority Leader Eric Cantor knew he was in trouble against challenger David Brat at least several weeks ago. The signals were there, you just had to know where to look.

I have been a resident of VA-07 since the 2010 round of redistricting, so I’ve experienced a couple of Congressman Cantor’s campaigns firsthand. Back in 2012, Cantor barely campaigned. The campaign was so low-key that several of my neighbors still displayed “Wittman for Congress” signs in their yards , presumably leftover from 2010, as they were unaware that we were redrawn into Cantor’s district. These are people passionate enough about voting that they kept yard signs in their garages for at least two years and then put them back out in 2012, but, presumably, they didn’t know they were represented by Eric Cantor until they got to the polling place. It would have been easy to miss− other than a couple of negative postcards about his opponent, there didn’t seem to be much of a campaign at all.

Fast-forward to 2014 and we saw a flood of TV ads describing David Brat as a “liberal college professor” and “advisor to Tim Kaine” (both of which are claims of dubious truthfulness). We saw ads that looked like a negative ad from Barack Obama against Eric Cantor, describing the latter as someone who wouldn’t compromise and would stick to his conservative values. But more telling was the fact that interest groups were getting involved in the campaign on behalf of Cantor. According to a tweet from Derek Willis, reporter for the NY Times Upshot, “The $308k American Chemistry Council spent on ad backing Eric Cantor is 29x all other IEs in his district since 2006 combined.” They were running TV spots as frequently, if not more frequently, than the Congressman himself.  These ads were polished, well-done, and professional. Clearly someone had spent a lot of money on these ads, but why?

According to the internal polls his campaign released, Cantor was up by 34 points. This made sense to much of the media because everyone expected him to win easily, so no one gave it any more thought. Something didn’t add up though. If Cantor was winning by 34 points, why would he be spending so much money in the primary? Why would the American Chemistry Council be spending so much of their money to help a candidate who was clearly going to win? Why not devote their resources elsewhere? The answer was simple: because everyone involved with the campaign knew that the poll was wrong and that David Brat posed a real threat to the incumbent’s position.  As I posted back on May 22, Cantor was worried about being outflanked by the Tea Party.

We know that candidates always project an optimistic front, strategically releasing internal polls for a variety of reasons unrelated to sharing true predictions.  So you can’t rely on their words to know what they’re thinking, you can only rely on their actions to signal how they truly see their chances. If they are running more ads than normal, they think they are losing. If those ads are negative, they think they are losing. Even acknowledging the opponent is a signal that candidates see that opponent as a viable challenge. Cantor’s campaign definitely did that through the deluge of ads both by the campaign and the American Chemistry Council. The signals were there, you just had to know where to look.



Chad Murphy

Fellow – HaystaqDNA

Assistant Professor, Political Science – University of Mary Washington