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Emerging populism bursting Washington bubble

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Off Road Politics connects Washington with Main Street hosted by Salena Zito and Lara Brown PhD. Exclusive radio show on @TribLIVE

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Saturday, June 14, 2014, 9:00 p.m.


The homemade sign along state Route 96 in Bedford County could easily be missed if a driver is distracted by the winding curves at the base of the Allegheny Mountains.

“Our country is dying. Please pray for all of us,” it says in blue letters on a white board. A bouquet of slightly wilted wildflowers is tied to it with a blue bow.

The sign doesn't blame anyone in particular; no political brand or elected official is named, no familiar tagline from social media or cable news is part of the message.

In fact, its poignant words (all lower-case, no wild-hare punctuation) and slightly hidden position in some ways reflect the underground populist movement that this column has warned about for months — moderate in tone, big in impact.

Populism is much more complicated than most people realize; it cannot be manufactured, cannot be forced, and no one person or handful of people can claim to inspire it. Populism, at its core, is driven by personal economics, disconnection from representative government and frustration with the lack of power to change either.

When Eric Cantor lost his primary race Tuesday, it wasn't because he wasn't conservative enough for his base. It wasn't because of the Republicans' tea party element. It had nothing to do with immigration reform, or some Democrat conspiracy to flood the polls. And it was not driven by right-wing talk-radio hosts or operatives from Heritage Action, Club for Growth, Citizens United or ForAmerica (which claimed Cantor's defeat was an “apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment”).

This was a complicated recipe, according to Republican strategist Bruce Haynes.

“There were more than four-and-twenty blackbirds baked into this pie,” Haynes said, adding that ultimately the loss had everything to do with Cantor: He lost touch with his constituency; he became too Washington, too associated with the D.C.-bubble brand; he forgot how to relate and to be that guy from his district.

A common thread weaves Cantor's race to others, said Haynes, “and it's populism.”

It is a cautionary thread — yet most people in Washington do not understand this moderate-in-tone populist wave. First, the wave is not going to take out every incumbent, so no “secret sauce” can “fix” it; second, it will have broad impact on both parties; third, it is relatively invisible because it has no name, no brand or party allegiance.

If it were so formulaic, then Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Bill Shuster would have lost his primary race last month in the district surrounding Pleasantville to his fire-breathing, talking-points-armed tea party rival; instead, Shuster — who is part of the GOP leadership in his powerful role as chairman of the House Transportation Committee — kept himself grounded through good old-fashioned retail politics.

Cantor's fatal flaw is the same one that put U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in jeopardy, said Haynes: “Cochran is a creature of Washington, too, and is poised to lose to a mild-mannered state senator” — Chris McDaniel — “in his runoff.”

Someone in one of the 83 households in Pleasantville is letting Washington know that he or she is caught up in the populism that is sweeping the country. And if any borough or town in the country should feel the impact of D.C.'s failings, it would be this one, where the average income for a household is less than $23,000 and nearly 20 percent of the population is living below the federal poverty line.

What Cantor's loss should tell Washington is that local politics matter — but Washington tends to listen only to what the pundits, strategists, reporters and experts in Washington say. Many of those Washingtonians have never stepped into “flyover country” unless they are in a bubble-wrapped press bus that feeds them their talking points and keeps them from listening to the locals in a meaningful way.

A judgment call is being made across the country, and it is this: “Are you one of us, or have you left us for Washington?”

The elected incumbents who get caught on the wrong side of that question will be upended in this year's elections. They should serve as a warning to those running for office in 2016, to shed the Washington bubble.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (

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