In a stunning upset propelled by tea party activists, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was defeated in Tuesday’s congressional primary, with insurgent David Brat delivering an unpredicted and devastating loss to the second most powerful Republican in the House who has widely been touted as a future speaker.
Brat’s victory gives the GOP a volatile outlook for the rest of the campaign season, with the party establishment struggling late Tuesday to grapple with the news and tea party conservatives relishing a surprising win.
“This is an earthquake,” said former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, a friend of Cantor’s. “No one thought he’d lose.” But Brat, tapping into conservative anger over Cantor’s role in supporting efforts to reform federal immigration laws, found a way to combat Cantor’s significant financial edge.
Brat, an economics professor, simply failed to show up to D.C. meetings with powerful conservative agitators last month, citing upcoming finals. He only had $40,000 in the bank at the end of March, according to first quarter filings. Cantor had $2 million.
Despite those shortcomings, Brat has exposed discontent with Cantor in the solidly Republican, suburban Richmond 7th Congressional District by attacking the lawmaker on his votes to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown, as well as his support for some immigration reforms. At a May meeting of Republican activists in the district, Cantor was booed, and an ally he campaigned for was ousted as the local party chairman in favor of a tea party favorite.
A similar revolt in the state Republican committee last year determined that the party would hold a two-day convention rather than an open primary to elect candidates in 2013. That decision helped gubernatorial contender Ken Cuccinelli II, a conservative hero who lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Many establishment Republicans in the state believe Cuccinelli’s nomination cost them the governorship. The 7th District fight is a sign that the factions in the party have yet to unite.
Since his days in the Virginia legislature, Cantor has been on the side of the pro-business, establishment. But he began to forge ties with the tea party in 2010, positioning himself as a conservative counterweight to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) after the movement helped sweep Republicans into power. Yet tea party activists in his own district have never embraced him.
Cantor has taken the primary threat seriously, attacking Brat in television ads and boasting in mailers that he blocked “amnesty” for illegal immigrants on Capitol Hill.
The winner of the GOP primary will face Democratic Party nominee Jack Trammell — a professor at Randolph-Macon College, the same school where Brat works — in the general election this fall.