"I'm giving a speech. I have no time for jokes," Steve Israel told Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Kelly Ward when she emailed to say there were signs something was happening in Virginia's 7th District.
It was 7:15 p.m. Tuesday and Israel had just left an event for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He passed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. as she arrived.
The New York Democrat was on his way to address the National Stone, Sand, and Gravel Association, and Ward flagged that with 30 percent of the primary vote in, it seemed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., might be in peril. He wasn't interested. Polls, after all, had just closed. Israel called Pelosi just in case: "I left a message, which was, 'You know I'm skeptical, but I just want to flag for you that there are indications Cantor may be in trouble, but I don't think we should do anything until we establish whether this is a false alarm.' That's what I said, 'false alarm.'"
The last thing he did when arriving at the podium for the 7:30 speech was check his email. By that point, Cantor's defeat was looking more likely — he was down by 6,000 votes with 58 percent of precincts tallied. Before Israel started his address (on the topic of infrastructure), he warned the crowd.
"I have some news. I don't call elections, but I know you'd be interested to know that Eric Cantor looks like he might be in some trouble tonight," he told attendees. "And it was like a gasp in the room."
By the time his speech wrapped, the first person he called on for question-and-answer session informed him that Cantor had lost. He'd learned about it on Twitter.
From there, Israel and DCCC staff were in "constant communication," doing the obvious sorts of things — calling Democratic candidate Jack Trammell and beginning opposition research on Dave Brat, the insurgent economics professor who'd taken down the No. 2 House Republican and shocked the world.
"I have been in this room for now three-and-a-half years, and never in a million years would I have ever predicted that I'd be sitting here talking to my staff about starting a process on Virginia 7," Israel told CQ Roll Call in a brief interview from DCCC headquarters Wednesday. "It's probably the last district I would have chosen. If forced, I probably would have said [Speaker John A. Boehner] would have more of a shot of losing than Eric Cantor. Could you imagine Steny Hoyer losing a primary?"
The district is likely far too Republican to be considered competitive come Nov. 4. Still, Israel's bottom line the morning after was clear: "It was a 10 on the stun scale."
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