Cantoring Through Political Fields

June 12, 2014 - 4:01 AM

Let's stipulate that I am old. Really old. Not Ralph Hall old (91 years) but pretty old. Old enough so I know exactly what Eric Cantor's staff have been going through since Tuesday night after his stunning defeat at the hands of economics professor Dave Brat.

The last time a sitting member of the House GOP leadership was beaten in a primary was in 1992 when the late Rep. Guy Vander Jagt lost the primary for his Western Michigan seat to the marketing director of a furniture company, Pete Hoekstra.

Vander Jagt had been the long-time chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee - the election arm of the GOP members of the U.S. House.

I was Guy Vander Jagt's campaign manager. I managed to manage him right into retirement.

We didn't not take the race seriously, but we didn't take it seriously. I don't remember now how much we spent on TV, billboards, mailings and phone calls, but it was enough to make it worthwhile having me sit in Holland, Michigan for a couple of months to oversee it.

On election night the first returns came in from a place called Cadillac, Michigan which happened to have been Vander Jagt's home town. We won it by something on the order of 12 votes.

We should have won it by something on the order of 12-1.

I found Vander Jagt's chief of staff (in those days the title was "administrative assistant") in the ballroom of the hotel where we were holding the victory party and told him we were going to lose, and probably lose big.

He said we needed to tell the Congressman. We found him talking to celebrants and suggested we move to a side room.

When we told him what the situation was, he said we needed to find his wife and daughter so they could hear the news from us. We found them and told them.

The early returns still had us ahead, but we knew what the outcome would be. At the next TV news break in a local reporter got Vander Jagt on camera and with the latest numbers scrolling under the scene congratulated him on what looked like another victory.

Vander Jagt said that he was not going to win and, about 45 minutes after the polls had closed, congratulated Hoekstra and said he would do everything in his power to see that Hoekstra would be the next Congressman from that District.

Whew! I'm glad I got that off my chest.

In the aftermath it was clear that no one was particularly mad at Vander Jagt, they just thought he'd been there too long and had neglected the people of the District.

Vander Jagt criss-crossed the country helping to recruit candidates to run for the House (this was pre-Gingrich revolution and so there wasn't much chance potential candidates could be convinced they might be staring down the barrel of being in the majority any time soon), and once having recruited them re-criss-crossed the country raising money to help them run their campaigns.

What he didn't do very often was come home to his district.

There was money for his district; Guy was on the Ways and Means Committee. A new highway up the Lake Michigan shoreline; a new hospital; those sorts of things. And the locals gave him full credit for having accomplished them.

But, while Vander Jagt was on TV and in the newspapers, Pete Hoekstra was - literally - riding his bike across the District.

We thought that people saw Vander Jagt on TV and were proud of their Congressman (I first typed "their guy" but I wasn't looking for a pun here) was in the national leadership.

We were wrong.

What they were thinking was "You want to be in leadership you do that on your time. We want someone who will be the grand marshal of the Little League parade; and who will attend as many high school graduations as humanly possible, and will be here campaigning for our votes.

As I said on CNN about Cantor: When it comes down to being on a Sunday talk show or spending Sunday shaking hands outside the Costco, "State of the Union" with Candy Crowley (if I'd been on MSNBC I would have said "Meet the Press") wins.

But the Congressman loses.

Thus endeth the lesson.

On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: Links to the bios of both Pete Hoekstra and Guy Vander Jagt. Also a selfie of me sitting on the set of MSNBC that needs to be color corrected.