Letter from Washington — From the April 2016 issue

Down the Tube

Television, turnout, and the election-industrial complex

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The grassroots campaign that helped to evict West in 2012 grew out of long experience and a well-honed organization. Two years later, Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the House of Representatives and a leading candidate for Speaker, was thrown out of office because Ron Maxwell got mad.

A film director with a number of big-budget credits, including the 1993 epic Gettysburg, Maxwell lives on a mountaintop deep in rural Virginia, near Cantor’s congressional district. Cantor “really got on my radar screen in the last year of the Bush Administration,” Maxwell told me, “when Bush was pushing through all the [Wall Street] bailouts.” Additional evidence of the politician’s crony capitalism — his habit of “doing the bidding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce” — further dismayed Maxwell, as did Cantor’s inveterate hawkishness and his support for immigrant amnesty, which the director saw as a corporate ploy to impoverish the American worker. The tipping point came in August 2013, when Cantor endorsed Obama’s plan to bomb Syria. Maxwell gathered a group of friends and neighbors who largely shared his brand of conservative Republicanism and said, “You know, we’ve got to get rid of Eric Cantor.”

The reaction, Maxwell told me, was muted. “It was, like, ‘Ron’s blowing off some steam here. Why would anybody take it seriously?’ ” Nevertheless, after probing the mood of the district over the next few months, Maxwell concluded that many Republicans shared his views. They objected to Cantor’s policies — and were irked that the congressman, who believed his hold on the (artfully gerrymandered) district to be unshakable, was never around.

Casting about for a suitable candidate to oppose Cantor in the 2014 Republican primary — which is the de facto election in this G.O.P. stronghold — Maxwell settled on Dave Brat, a conservative economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, a small school a few miles north of Richmond. Prospectively, it was a forlorn effort. The national Tea Party groups declined to endorse the quixotic insurgency. Maxwell himself was beating the bushes for funds, even from friends not necessarily sympathetic to Brat’s agenda. His wife, who gave $1,000, was one of the largest donors: most donations were less than $200. Cantor was meanwhile rolling in money from such Wall Street behemoths as Goldman Sachs. By the time it was over, he had outspent his upstart opponent by a ratio of 41 to 1. One category of expenditure alone — $168,000 for steak-house tabs — cost almost as much as Brat’s entire campaign. Needless to say, Cantor’s staff also blew huge sums on TV ads, many of which tarred Brat (bizarrely, for anyone exposed to his views on free-market economics) as a “liberal college professor.”

Brat’s grassroots ground campaign mirrored the effort of CREDO in 2012. As Maxwell told me, the upstart was “shaking hands, meeting people at Kmart, Costco, Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, P.T.A.’s, Little League, every night. All the volunteers were knocking on doors.” There were no TV advertisements, he said: “Zero. There was no money for it. We were certainly worried about it, because before the Brat election, we were in a world where everybody thought TV matters.”

For the election consultants and pundits alike, Cantor’s ultimate victory was never in doubt: his pollster predicted he would win 60 percent of the vote. This confidence remained intact right up until the announcement that Brat had won, 56–44, abruptly closing down the incumbent’s lavish celebration at a Richmond hotel.

Kieschnick, who retired from CREDO in 2015, believes that this strategy holds bright promise for the progressive element. Asked whether big money could ever be defeated, he told me, “Yes, but only because most of the One Percent — not all! — waste most of their money in politics on expensive but bad advertising and even more expensive consultants. Since the American people agree with us on most of the issues, it is an ongoing struggle between voter suppression, misinformation, and voter turnout. If we simply shifted half of the billions spent on television into ongoing, year-round, person-to-person engagement with voters, progressive candidates would dominate. But year after year, we raise more money and waste it.”

Mike McKenna, who has spent his career working the other side of aisle, has come to a similar conclusion. “If you can convince the politicians that they don’t really need to spend their time raising all that money,” he told me earnestly, “they’ll carry you round Capitol Hill on their shoulders.”

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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