A flabbergasted Republican Party is scrambling to pick up the pieces after its second-in-command in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, suffered one of the most remarkable electoral defeats in recent memory, falling to an unknown Tea Party rival on primary night in his district in Virginia.
Mr Cantor, who was beaten by a college economics professor called David Brat, is now denied a spot on the ballot in November’s midterm congressional election. His defeat will reverberate far beyond the district itself, reigniting the warfare between the party’s establishment and far-right factions and making it nigh on impossible for the House to pass meaningful legislation for the foreseeable future.
Mr Cantor, who had widely been seen as the heir-apparent to John Boehner when he steps down as House Speaker, perhaps early next year, was by most reckonings a staunch conservative himself, leading, for instance, numerous efforts to repeal universal healthcare. But he was expelled by voters who thought him insufficiently conservative. That spells a grass-roots demand for the party to lurch even further to the right.
Mr Cantor was expected to confirm he will step down from the position of Majority Leader at the end of July, kicking off what is likely to be a messy and distracting race to succeed him. An almost certain victim of this single result will be the prospect of passing immigration reform soon. Mr Brat waged a single-issue campaign, focusing relentlessly on what he claimed was Mr Cantor’s support for a reform package that would give the millions of illegal immigrants in the US a path to eventual citizenship. Critics, including Mr Brat and all Tea Party candidates, call this an “amnesty”.
Almost no expression of hyperbole in connection to Mr Cantor’s downfall seemed out of place. He was the first Majority Leader to lose a primary race since 1889. And the shock was all the more profound because no one, it seemed, had the slightest inkling that he might be beaten. He was not even in his district on Tuesday, when voting took place. Instead he was at a fund-raising pep-talk in a Washington Starbucks.
Some kind of poll malpractice might even have occurred; not a single survey hinted at trouble for Mr Cantor, who ended up losing by an 11-point margin. He had outspent Mr Brat by about 26 to one. According to campaign finance filings, he had invested $5m while Mr Brat had spent $122,000. But as the triumphant victor told his supporters: “Dollars don’t vote – you do.”
Just to add sauce to the tale of unequal war chests, the same filings reveal that the Cantor campaign spent $168,637 on meals in two different steakhouses in the district –in other words, more than the entire amount the professor had at his disposal to win.
“This is one of the most stunning upsets in modern American political history,” Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “This is the base rebelling against the GOP leadership in Washington as represented by Eric Cantor.” He added: “I’m as stunned as anybody.”
Upended has been the main narrative of the primary season so far, the success of the establishment wing in seeing off challenges to moderates by Tea Party extremists. These, they fear, will jeopardise the party’s prospects in November of expanding control of the House and taking over the Senate. Instead, the Tea Party is delirious that its candidates in the many primaries still to come will get a boost.
The turmoil for the Republicans gave Democrats glee. “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 Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader. “As far as the midterm elections are concerned, it’s a whole new ball game.”
Paralysis now seems certain in the House because a resurgent Tea Party will make almost any Republican not in its good graces afraid to vote for just about anything, in case it hurts them in their primary races. It is likely, meanwhile, that momentum towards immigration reform will be halted even beyond this November and perhaps for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s second term.
That could cast a chill over those who would like Jeb Bush, the former Governor of Florida, to pitch his hat into the ring for the party’s nomination in 2016. He appeals to many in the party because he has shared their concerns that unless they can win over the fast-growing Hispanic population with ideas for immigration reform the Republicans will again be unable to regain the White House.
Congress may also seize up if the Tea Party standard bearers already there are now re-emboldened to block legislation. “Thank God there’s no debt ceiling vote coming up. Thank God there’s no opportunity to shut the government down over the next several months,” said Representative Peter King, a veteran Republican congressman from New York.
In November, Mr Brat will face another professor from the same college, the Democrat Jack Trammel. He is almost certain to be elected to Congress because the district leans heavily Republican. “This is a miracle from God,” Mr Brat told supporters when the last results came in.