No one reason can explain the humiliating primary defeat of House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor. It was probably a mix of numerous factors: immigration, the tea party revolt reaching the guillotine stage, the possibility that he’s just not a very likable guy, and a general anti-incumbent mood in Republican primaries. These are all serious problems, but a strong campaign may have helped save him. But a look at Cantor’s Federal Election Commission filings show why his campaign couldn’t bail him out: he spent most of his time traveling the country spending as much money as he raised, and he spent a tiny fraction of his $5 million campaign fund actually communicating with voters.
Cantor started the 2014 campaign cycle with over a million dollars in his account. [He has other funds--leadership funds--in to which he raises money that can be given to fellow Republicans, but that can't be used on his own election campaigns.] In 2013 he raised a little over $3.3 million for his campaign fund. However, he spent just under $3.3 million. So a year’s worth of prodigious fundraising left him at roughly the same place he was at the start of the year. How did he manage that? Easy: he spent almost as much raising money as he raised.
Cantor’s 2014 filings aren’t fully updated in an easily perused format. But looking just at 2013 reveals some dubious financial management. His campaign spent $1,500 at Dunkin Donuts. $3,000 at DC-area pizza chain Pizza Boli. $10,000 with a North Carolina vendor on gifts. $13,000 at Corner Bakery. $20,000 at the Marriot Marquis in New York City. $110,000 at DC steakhouse Bobby Van’s. Over $200,000 on finance consulting with a firm called Red River Co. But not a penny was spent on voter contact.
In 2013 Cantor spent roughly twice as much at Bobby Van’s as he did on polling.
Cantor’s 2014 finance reports aren’t much better. He spent about $400,000 airing television ads, but that’s probably less than he spent on airfare. He appears to have done no significant direct mail or digital advertising. There are few disbursements that look like field-related expenses. He paid for no opposition research. And his staff costs appear only marginally higher than they were in 2013, which suggests he never really ramped up for the election, but instead maintained his focus on traveling the country on behalf of other Republicans, and while on the road raising enough money to pay for his expenses (which include few nights in modest lodging but plenty of nights at some of the most expensive hotels in the country).
The most an individual donor can give a candidate for federal office is $2,400 per election. However, primaries and generals are counted as separate elections, and many donors contribute more than $2,400. Cantor could take up to $4,800 from a single donor, but he couldn’t spend more than $2,400 of a donor’s total contribution for primary expenses; the rest had to sit in his account unused until after the primary. So some of the money he was carrying in his fund was useless to him in a primary. If he ever realized that he had a tough primary he probably also realized he had burned through most of his primary funds and had little money left to spend on a primary campaign.
Cantor spent money as if the only election that mattered was the House Republican Conference leadership votes. But in spending his time and money on that election, he made himself vulnerable to humiliation at home.