By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A combination of over-confidence, neglect of his district and voter anger at congressional leaders fueled Republican Eric Cantor's stunning primary loss in Virginia, an upset that rocked the Republican Party.
Cantor's loss on Tuesday to a political unknown, college professor and Tea Party challenger David Brat, followed a series of missed warning signs and miscalculations in the final weeks of a race that largely flew under the national political radar.
Cantor, the second-ranked House Republican, had been widely viewed as a possible successor to House Speaker John Boehner. But his devotion to leadership and fundraising duties came at the expense of courting voters.
"All the hoopla about being a member of leadership doesn't mean anything to voters back in your district," said Republican strategist Rich Galen, who managed the 1992 campaign of the last member of leadership to lose a primary, Republican Guy Vander Jagt.
"I know just how those guys feel today," Galen said, sympathizing with Cantor's team. "If you have a choice on a Sunday between being interviewed on 'Meet the Press' or shaking hands with voters at Costco, you better be at Costco."
Cantor, speaking to reporters at the Capitol after announcing he would give up his leadership post on July 31, said he had been back to visit his district every week.
"There is a balance between holding a leadership position and serving constituents at home, but never was there a day that I did not put the constituents of the 7th district of Virginia first," he said.
Analysts said a number of factors played a role in deciding the race, including a low turnout of only about 65,000 voters.
Brat galvanized conservative and local Tea Party activists with accusations that Cantor betrayed conservative principles on the hot-button issue of immigration reform legislation. Cantor was concerned enough to fire back with ads touting his role in blocking House opposition that included any kind of "amnesty" for undocumented workers seeking legal status.
Conservative talk radio personalities such as Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham beat the drum for Brat and regularly criticized Cantor over immigration, helping to engage conservative voters on the ground.
"It's a dramatic demonstration that grassroots can prevail," said Patrick McSweeney, a Brat supporter and a former Virginia state Republican Party chairman.
Cantor also was lulled into a sense of false confidence by an internal poll that showed him ahead by more than 30 percentage points. At a Capitol Hill meeting with fundraisers on Tuesday morning he had speculated about how large his margin of victory might be, an attendee said.
Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson said Cantor's internal polls obviously miscalculated the pool of likely voters, which is difficult to predict in primary elections that typically draw low interest and turnout.
'SHOULD HAVE CAUSED BELLS TO GO OFF'
Opinion polls in the district also showed Cantor with a higher unfavorable rating than favorable rating, and gave poor approval ratings to congressional leaders in general.
"That should have caused bells to go off," said Steve LaTourette, a former Ohio congressman who now leads a group that backs centrist, business-friendly Republicans in primary elections.
Cantor was booed last month at a local Republican meeting where Brat criticized him for refusing to debate.
Analysts criticized Cantor's aggressive attack ads in the final weeks of the race linking Brat with liberal Democratic former Governor Tim Kaine, complete with images of the previously unknown professor of economics at Randolph-Macon College.
"He boosted Dave Brat's name identification dramatically by going after him with his advertising," Galen said.
The race now looks like a "perfect storm" for the Tea Party, with Cantor's leadership making him an inviting target for the group's anti-establishment message, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at Mary Washington University in Virginia.
But national Tea Party groups and outside conservative groups like the Tea Party Express, the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks sat out the election.
Cantor drastically outspent Brat, pouring more than $5 million into the race while the challenger spent $122,000.
The underfunded Brat was backed by a little-known group called We Deserve Better PAC, which spent $4,000 on Internet ads opposing Cantor, and an anti-immigration reform group called Americans for Legal Immigration, which spent less than $1,000 against Cantor.
Democrats also might have played at least a small role in the outcome. Voters do not register by party in Virginia and can participate in either party primary. Former Representative Ben Jones, a Georgia Democrat who played Cooter in the popular old "Dukes of Hazzard" television show, and once lost a race to Cantor a decade ago, wrote an open letter urging Democrats to back Brat.
In the end, though, the seven-term congressman, who had close ties to the financial industry and was a prolific fundraiser, was successfully painted as more concerned with national politics than his district constituents.
"When voters aren't seeing you at home, you pay a price," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a former congressional leadership aide.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan, Gary Robertson in Richmond, Virginia; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Henderson)