This past Wednesday House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his seat’s Republican primary election, sending shockwaves throughout the political community. To put it in perspective, a sitting House Majority leader has never lost a party primary since the position’s conception in 1899. Mr. Cantor’s three year run as the second most powerful congressman came to an end when Tea Party backed candidate Dave Brat defeated him. The race was not close, and the defeat substantial. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Brat had 55 percent of the vote to Cantor’s 44 percent. What makes the results even more confounding is the disparity between the candidate’s campaign budgets. As of May 21, Cantor had raised $5.4 million to Mr. Brat’s comparatively paltry $200,000.
Mr. Brat was a political before his primary victory thrust him into the national spotlight. An economics professor from Randolph Macon, a small college outside of Richmond, he ran off a platform of small government. He specifically attacked Cantor’s conservative credentials and focused on what he deemed a much too lenient immigration policy, going so far as to equating it with amnesty for illegal immigrants. This may be disconcerting to advocates for any type of immigration reform considering the fact that Cantor had mailed out two flyers cementing his position against the “Obama Reid Plan to Give Illegal Aliens Amnesty.” Mr. Brat also criticized Cantor for his willingness to compromise with Democrats on the health care and the budget. His attacks resonated with primary voters, even though Cantor played a part in presiding over more than forty votes to repeal either parts of the whole of Obamacare since the law’s inception.
For those not satisfied with the idea that Cantor lost because he did not chalk far enough to the right, other theories have been given to explain the upset. There is talk in political circles that Cantor’s defeat could be chalked up to poor campaigning more than anything else. It is well known that his national aspirations caused him to neglect the district he was representing. Richmond Tea Party executive director Larry Nordvig used this fact to strengthen his faction’s cause with the simple acronym mantra of ABC-Anybody But Cantor. It goes to show that it does not matter how powerful a congressman is in Washington. If his or her respective constituency feels neglected, a replacement can be found.
It is also of note that primary voters tend to be the more ardent supporters of their respective parties. This means that the farther right a candidate was willing to go, the more he would appease the people who would actually go out and vote on primary election day. Another interesting quirk is the fact that in Virginia, anyone, regardless of party affiliation, can vote in one party’s primary. This fact is not lost on those who believe that the Democrats rallied their own supporters to go out and vote for Mr. Brat, in hopes of creating the upheaval presently engulfing the Republican Party. While a stretch, it is not entirely implausible. Any, or all of these factors could have contributed to Cantor’s demise.
At a time when Republicans were hoping to regain control of the Senate, and thus both houses of Congress, its increasingly fractious nature is threatening to derail a successful midterm election this fall. Some of these fears were allayed when Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina defeated six Tea Party challengers in the state’s GOP primary. The fact that an “old guard” Republican could fend off an attack from the far right in a conservative state such as Tennessee bodes well for them in upcoming primaries. But the fact remains that Brat’s victory over the sitting House Majority Leader has given the Tea Party a resounding victory, much to the dismay of the GOP. If Republicans want to control both houses, they need to first get their own in order.