In one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history, the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, was soundly defeated on Tuesday by a Tea Party-backed economics professor who had hammered him for being insufficiently conservative.
Mr. Cantor’s defeat delivered a major jolt to the Republican Party — he had widely been considered the top candidate to succeed Speaker John A. Boehner one day — and it has the potential both to change the debate in Washington on immigration and to reshape the midterm elections, which had been favoring his party.
With just over $200,000, David Brat — a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. — toppled Mr. Cantor, repeatedly criticizing him for being soft on immigration and contending that he supported what critics call amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally. The Associated Press declared Mr. Brat the winner.
Just this week I heard political analysts on the radio saying that Cantor was going to have no trouble winning, but the size of his victory would tell us how powerful the Tea Party is.
Well, well, well. It wasn’t even close.
Cantor managed to muddle his message on immigration. His direct-mail pieces claimed he was foursquare against amnesty. But the newspapers covering Washington, D.C., quoted him as saying he was seeking a compromise with President Obama on immigration. Voters resolved the seeming contradiction by deciding to vote out their establishment congressman. Cantor’s loss destroys any chance of a comprehensive immigration bill passing the House this year.
Primaries are often criticized for low voter turnout. But they are also expressions of the grassroots sentiments of political parties. The lesson tonight is that establishment candidates ignore their most ardent voters at their peril. As political analyst Stuart Rothenberg put it tonight: “The GOP establishment’s problem isn’t with the Tea Party. It’s with Republican voters.”
Cantor’s constituent services moved more toward focusing on running the Republican House majority than his congressional district. K Street, the den of Washington lobbyists, became his chief constituency. In Virginia a couple of months ago, several residents of Cantor’s district groused that they were going to support Brat because they did not think Cantor was doing his job as a Virginia congressman. Others no longer trusted him.
Cantor lost his race because he was running for Speaker of the House of Representatives while his constituents wanted a congressman. The tea party and conservatives capitalized on that with built up distrust over Cantor’s other promises and made a convincing case Cantor could not be trusted on immigration either. Cantor made it easy trying to be a congressman from Virginia and a worthy successor to the Speaker in K-Street’s eyes.
This reminds me of what so many Louisiana Republicans say about Gov. Bobby Jindal: that they voted for a governor, but he’s been running for president — and the interests of the Club For Growth and national conservative constituencies are not the same as the interests of the people of Louisiana, even conservative ones.
Virginia and DC readers, what’s your take on this stunning event?
If I’m Thad Cochran, I’m thinking tonight about putting a sugar kettle around my neck and going for a swim in a Wilkinson County creek.
UPDATE: John Podhoretz’s take:
Eric Cantor wasn’t supposed to lose. His own pollster had him up by, get this, 34 points the other week. He’d raised nearly $5 million, and in the past two weeks spent $1 million against his rival’s $79,000. Not enough. … Interesting things can happen in politics. Very interesting things. Right now the only sure thing, supposedly, is that Hillary Clinton will sail through the Democratic primaries unopposed. The would-be candidate we all saw last night embarrassing herself in an interview with Diane Sawyer should not be considered an inevitability. Eric Cantor’s reelection was an inevitability too.