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A Populist Just Kneecapped Eric Cantor. Should Hillary Be Worried?

Getty Images News/Mark Lyons

Of all the reasons Eric Cantor may have lost his primary, the one most likely to matter beyond his own district is the populist bludgeoning he endured. As my colleague John Judis reported earlier today, Cantor’s challenger Dave Brat went relentlessly at Cantor’s habit of courting corporate fat-cats. “All the investment banks in New York and DC—those guys should have gone to jail,” he mused. “Instead of going to jail, they went on Eric’s Rolodex, and they are sending him big checks.” It wasn’t so different from rhetoric you hear on the left these days. And it raises the question: If anti-Wall Street, anti-corporate populism can take down a powerful Republican in a conservative district, should pro-business Democrats be worried, too?

I think the answer is yes, but with qualifications. The general problem with making charges of the form “politician X raises tons of money from Wall Street” is that voters aren’t very good at processing corruption in the abstract. They intuitively sense that raising lots of money from special interests is compromising. But they have trouble seeing, and therefore getting exercised about, the consequences of this arrangement—the subtle, below-the-radar way it affects policy over long periods of time. That helps explain why campaign finance reform rarely goes anywhere, even though the vast majority of Americans believe the rich have too much influence. And it helps explain why many Wall Street-funded Democrats had little trouble keeping their jobs even after the 2008 financial crisis.

But if voters are lousy at reacting to abstract, systemic problems, there’s one thing they’re very good at: pattern recognition. Which is to say, identifying a few prominent dots and connecting them in the most direct way possible. And Eric Cantor offered some big fat dots, at least in the eyes of conservatives: He supported a form of immigration reform and voted to raise the debt ceiling and end last fall’s government shutdown. This gave Brat both a motive and a crime: Cantor was selling out conservatives to please his deep-pocketed donors. “[Corporations] get cheap labor, but everyone in the 7th district gets cheap wages,” Brat alleged, according to Judis’s story. The combination was deadly. (And, incidentally, also helps explain the survival of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Though conservatives mistrust both of them, too, neither suffered the dual-pronged attack of ideological heresy and corporate whore-dom.)

What does this mean for Democrats? On the one hand, it means that someone like Hillary Clinton—who, as luck would have it, spent yesterday trying to walk back her initial explanation for the millions she and her husband have made speaking at companies like Goldman Sachs over the years—is relatively safe. Buckraking alone isn’t likely to provide grist for the kind of populist rage that felled Cantor. On the other hand, if it turns out that there’s some as-yet undiscovered ideological betrayal lurking in her past—if, say, we learn that Clinton was aggressively pressing for approval of the Keystone pipeline as secretary of state (and, let’s be clear, there’s no evidence she was, I chose the example just to illustrate)—then that would be another matter entirely. It would fuse concerns about ideological corruption with concerns about actual corruption in truly toxic ways.

In fact, in a strange way, the race that best predicted Cantor’s fate wasn’t on the Republican side, or even a race for federal office. It was last years’ Democratic primary for New York City mayor. Then-city council Speaker Christine Quinn started off as the favorite, but was pummeled into submission by the eventual winner, Bill de Blasio. Like Cantor, Quinn had raised gobs of money from powerful corporate interests—she was the “best friend” of the real estate industry in de Blasio’s telling. And, like Cantor, she had at least one high-profile ideological (or at least partisan) betrayal on her resume, having played the key role in easing the term limits that allowed Michael Bloomberg to run again. (De Blasio: “Allow me to be clear and say we have Speaker Quinn to thank for the Bloomberg third term.”) In the end, Quinn couldn’t escape the suspicions that she’d strayed from the Democratic base, and that money had greased her path. Maybe one of Eric Cantor’s New York banker friends could have given him a heads up.