Of course it isn’t yet clear what Eric Cantor’s stunning and decisive defeat at the hands of an unknown challenger with one twentieth the campaign funds means for the direction of the House GOP. On domestic issues, including immigration, Cantor has been a chameleon—an establishment figure, a reformer, a “young gun,” a Tea Party insurgent with legislative tactician skills, a supporter of immigration reform (aka amnesty), and then a professed opponent of the same immigration reform. (I should note there was a time, in the 1990s, when immigration “reform” meant tightening the borders and tinkering with the legal immigration system so it was more skills-based, less based on “your brother’s wife got in a few years ago, so you are now eligible for a visa.”) The only ads I’ve seen from David Brat, the surprising victor, attacked Cantor’s readiness to hang out with big-money immigration boosters (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) while ignoring the labor market and wage impact large-scale immigration has for voters in his district.
One issue wasn’t talked about, though I wonder if it subliminally registered with some anti-Cantor voters. Cantor in 2010 more or less presented himself as Bibi Netanyahu’s congressman. Newly elevated by the GOP House takeover as the incoming majority leader, he held a private meeting with the Likud leader at the New York Regency. No other Americans were present; Netanyahu was joined by Israel’s ambassador and national security advisor.
It was a tense time in American-Israeli relations: the Obama administration was pushing hard for progress on peace talks and trying to get Israel to stop expanding settlements on the West Bank during the negotiations, an idea vigorously resisted by Israel’s government. During the meeting, Cantor gave Netanyahu assurances that the House would have his back in any showdown with the Obama administration. The Republicans, he told Bibi, “understand the special relationship” and would obstruct American initiatives which made Israel uncomfortable. Ron Kampeas, a veteran and centrist observer of U.S.-Israeli relations, said he could not “remember an opposition leader telling a foreign leader, in a personal meeting, that he would side, as a policy, with that leader against the president.” So Cantor was, in his way, making history.
The ties to Israel made Cantor popular in the GOP caucus. Cantor could raise money more easily than other southern congressmen—from pro-Israel billionaires, for example—and spread it around. Sheldon Adelson poured millions into his PAC. Cantor knew his way around the Regency.
More recently, Cantor has spearheaded House opposition to Obama’s negotiations with Iran, speaking frequently of Iran in terms that echo Netanyahu. His Mideast positions track completely with Likud’s, whether it be aid to the Syrian rebels or aid to Egypt after the Sisi coup. He may be hard to pin down domestic issues, one day a moderate, another a hard rightist, but he is always a hawk—whether it be Ukraine or Syria or Iran, he will be a force pushing the most belligerent policies.
I wonder if this registered in the district in some ways. Pat Lang, of the interesting Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, meditated on Cantor (his congressmen) several years ago, wondering whether this sophisticated Richmond lawyer was a natural fit for a district that trends barbecue. Some have pointed to an ethnic angle, which could well be a factor. But it may be simply that conservative southern Republicans are beginning to get tired of neocons telling them they have to prepare to fight another war. Antiwar Republican Walter Jones won his North Carolina primary earlier this spring, standing strong against a major media assault by Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel. Now, in an election result that stunned political observers more than anything that happened in their lifetime, Cantor goes down before an underfunded Tea Party candidate.
We’ll see what happens with David Brat, but he’s already made history.