Eric Cantor’s loss a lesson for all politicians

“If you go door-to-door knocking, the American people know this country is headed in the wrong direction: the debt, the deficits, the economic growth is terrible. The regulatory burden is terrible. And the representation in D.C. won’t address those major issues.”

With that statement, Dave Brat of Virginia, who stunned the nation in his primary win over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday night, pretty much said it all: The country has wandered off course and no one is doing anything to guide it back.

Brat’s win may have come as a shock to political observers, but his core message has been deeply felt by everyday Americans for at least four years. The average of national polls done by the website Real Clear Politics has consistently shown that about two-thirds of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction. That means voters are unsettled — they are afraid — and they are willing to make changes as a result, no matter whom their congressman is.

Discontent can be measured in telephone polling, but it’s only at front doors and in coffee shops that one can truly feel the gravity of American angst. “If you go-door-to door knocking,” Brat said, clearly having tapped into voter sentiment on many a front step. It was something Cantor evidently failed to do enough of. While he was becoming a powerful national figure — and a good one — voters in Virgina’s 7th Congressional District were feeling left behind.

Tuesday’s upset already is being spun as a Tea Party vs. Republican Party phenomenon. But it’s probably something larger. It’s a warning from voters to all incumbents: Forget who empowers you, and you can be disempowered, especially in political primaries.

Tuesday illustrates, too, how primary voters on both sides want philosophical clarity from candidates. They want a vision and a plan to get there. We saw that in the New York City mayoral election in 2013. Bill de Blasio, the ideologically crispest candidate, captured the Democratic primary and went onto the carry the general election in a heavily Democratic city. We see it, too, in the newfound swagger of the state’s Working Families Party, which now dictates the legislative positions of leading New York Democrats.

Leftists in New York and nationally are convinced their time has come, while conservatives, myself among them, are convinced that the state and country want to move in a more conservative direction. Regardless of who is correct, I think it’s safe to say that voters yearn for progress and a steady hand in government.

Eric Cantor’s loss will be a good thing for the country if incumbents apply its lesson in shoe leather — and they will. When voters shake things up, elected officials listen.

As for Cantor, he’ll be back. He is a too smart and too talented to disappear from the political landscape. And he’ll be sharper when he makes his return.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.