How does a political veteran with a $5 million war chest lose to an ill-funded neophyte?
One way is to spend it poorly by, for example, airing more than 1,000 television ads without ever talking directly in them to voters — and frequently broadcasting your opponent’s image.
Eric Cantor's campaign finance reports show hotel bills from far-flung places such as the Ritz Carlton in Boca Raton, Fla., and the Beverly Hills Hilton in California. Then there’s more than 400 charges for "airfare," and about $170,000 shelled out at steakhouses.
Such spending stands in sharp contrast to reports submitted by Dave Brat, the college professor who stunningly defeated the House majority leader in Tuesday's Virginia Republican primary. Brat's transportation charges through May 21 totaled $3,035 for gas reimbursements. His top food cost up to that date: $800 spent at a HoneyBaked Ham outlet.
"This is a rare example of an instance where money really isn’t the most important currency in a campaign," Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., said in an interview. "When you lose touch with your district, I don’t know that it matters how much money you spend."
Money in the bank is usually a strong indicator of support. Cantor's loss proves that a well-funded candidate supported by outside groups and super-political action committees doesn’t always carry the day.
It's a lesson that has emerged before: Karl Rove's two political organizations spent nearly $200 million in 2012 on 22 races and only won seven. Connecticut's Linda McMahon spent $100 million of her own money on two Senate campaigns and lost both times.
Cantor spent roughly $5 million through May 21, his reports show, and much of it was clearly not focused on his own race. Many of the expenses were connected to his travels across the country to help other candidates as part of his leadership role.
Brat had spent $123,000 as of May 21, all of it on his candidacy.
His win "was a homegrown, grassroots conservative revolt against a politician whose constituents perceived him to be more focused on Washington than his district, and more focused on power rather than principle," said Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia Attorney General who lost the state's gubernatorial race last year and Wednesday became the president of the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Television ads are among the most powerful weapons campaign money can buy, yet they carry less of a punch in a primary contest.
"The smaller the target audience, the less effective television is," said Will Feltus, a Republican strategist at National Media Inc. in Alexandria, Va. "So many of your impressions are wasted on people who are not going to vote."
Cantor ran 1,038 commercials on local broadcast stations through June 9, and 348 were aired on his behalf by an outside group, the American Chemistry Council, a Washington-based trade group whose members include Dow Chemical and 3M.
The Cantor messages may have been off-the-mark and inadvertently aided his opponent, a political newcomer, gain name recognition. Fifty percent of the ads Cantor ran were negative spots. They referred to Brat as a "liberal college professor" who didn't oppose then-Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine's tax hikes when the challenger was a member of a state advisory board of economists.
Brat mostly used radio spots. His sole television ad aired 65 times beginning June 4, six days before the primary. "I will proudly stand for the conservative values that Eric Cantor has abandoned in Washington," he said in it.
"It depends how you use your money," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. Cantor's commercials "really didn't pass the credibility test," while they instead raised Brat's profile in the district.
"That was money that wasn't well spent," Duffy said.
In contrast, Sen. Lindsey Graham — like Cantor, a target of some tea party activists — ran an entirely positive race on television and won the Republican primary in South Carolina against six opponents the same day the House leader lost.
About 65,000 people voted in the Cantor-Brat primary, up more than 38 percent from turnout in the district's 2012 primary, in which Cantor defeated a different little-known opponent with 79 percent of the vote.
"We didn’t want it to be this big of a universe" of voters, said John McLaughlin, Cantor's polling expert. "We were targeting for a typical Republican turnout."
His surveys showed Cantor ahead by more than 30 percentage points two weeks ago.
McLaughlin blamed the loss on Democrats and other non-Republican voters casting ballots in the race. Virginia voters don't register by party and are free to participate in any party's primary.
"Democrats had to be playing games," McLaughlin said in an interview. "I guarantee these voters were not on our lists."
Even if some Democrats crossed over for Brat, that doesn't explain how Cantor's vote total plunged 23 percent to 28,902 votes from 37,369 votes in the 2012 primary, a difference of 8,467 votes. Cantor lost re-nomination yesterday by 7,218 votes.
"There was a lot of insurgency energy in this Republican electorate, the tea party energy, and I think that better explains the increased turnout for me than any idea that these were all Democrats who turned out," said political scientist Kidd.
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