WASHINGTON: A little-known and under-funded tea party challenger crushed Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning upset in a Republican primary election, denying the second-most-powerful man in the U.S. House of Representatives a place on the November ballot and riding a wave of conservative anger over calls to loosen immigration laws. Economics professor David Brat’s double-digit and single-issue victory Tuesday in Virginia forces a shake-up in the leadership ranks of majority Republicans in one of the most profound political upsets in recent American history.
Conservative tea party candidates had not fared well in this year’s primary elections to choose candidates for the November general election. Establishment Republicans had rallied to deny the tea party places on the ballot, determined to avoid a repeat of recent elections where Republicans lost safe seats in the House and Senate because insurgent tea party primary victors proved too extreme to win in the general election.
The victory was by far the biggest of the 2014 campaign season for the tea party movement, which advocates reducing the federal deficit through deep spending cuts but opposes tax increases. While largely shut out in primaries this year, tea party supporters last week forced veteran Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran into a June 24 runoff with state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
House Speaker John Boehner, a fellow Republican, praised Cantor as “a good friend and a great leader, and someone I’ve come to rely upon on a daily basis” in a statement that steered clear of the immigration issue that Brat put at the center of his campaign and has divided the party for years. Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus and Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the head of the House Republican campaign committee, both kept their silence Tuesday night after the shocking loss.
Cantor told downcast supporters, “Obviously we came up short.”
Brat and his supporters in the tea party were triumphant.
“This is a miracle from God,” Brat said.
But as he looked ahead to November’s elections, Brat declined to spell out policy specifics.
“I’m a Ph.D. in economics, and so you analyze every situation uniquely,” he told MSNBC in an interview in which he said he preferred to keep the focus on the “celebratory issues” of Tuesday’s results.
The outcome likely marks the end of a political career for Cantor, who had been seen as a future House speaker. His only path to keeping his seat is to run a long-shot write-in campaign in the November election.
The impact of Cantor’s loss on the fate of immigration legislation in the current Congress seemed clear. Conservatives will be emboldened in their opposition to legislation to create a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, and Republican leaders who are more sympathetic to such legislation will likely be less willing to try.
Many establishment Republicans say the party cannot afford to stick to an uncompromising stand on the immigration issue, given the increasing political influence of Hispanic voters, who were key in President Barack Obama’s win in 2012.
Democrats seized on Cantor’s upset as evidence that their fight for House control this fall is not over.
“Eric Cantor has long been the face of House Republicans’ extreme policies, debilitating dysfunction and manufactured crises. Tonight is a major victory for the tea party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right,” said the Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi. “As far as the midterm elections are concerned, it’s a whole new ballgame.”
But the big Republican margin in the House makes a Democratic takeover highly unlikely.
Cantor was appointed to his first leadership position in 2002, when he became the highest-ranking Jewish Republican in Washington. It was recognition of his fundraising skills as well as his conservative voting record, at a time Republican leaders were eager to tap into Jewish donors for their campaigns. Since Boehner became speaker in 2009, Cantor has been seen as both a likely eventual successor and a potential rival.
Brat raised over $200,000 for his campaign, while Cantor spent more than $1 million in April and May alone to try to beat back his challenge.
Brat offset the cash disadvantage with endorsements from conservative activists and with help from local tea party figures angry with Cantor.
In the November election, Brat will face Democrat Jack Trammel, a professor at the same college, Randolph-Mason.