WASHINGTON In a stunning upset, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., was defeated Tuesday in a barely watched Republican primary by a little-known challenger who hammered Cantor as soft on illegal immigration and other hot button conservative causes.
David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, easily defeated Cantor, who was first elected to the Richmond area House seat in 2000. Brat’s chief complaint was that Cantor -- who just two years ago was a hero of the tea party movement -- was no longer conservative enough and had grown too willing to deal with the Democrats in Washington.
The defeat was certain to echo through the party and the Congress, a stinging message to those seen as the establishment just as they had thought they had learned how to manage tea party challenges. Earlier this spring, for example, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., muscled aside a tea party challenge.
“If you go knocking door to door, you’ll know the American people think they’re in trouble,” Brat told Fox News Tuesday evening. “It was a miracle. God gave us this win.”
Conservative groups rejoiced at Cantor’s ouster.
“The statement from the grassroots could not be any clearer. It doesn’t matter what office you hold or how powerful you are. If you lose touch with activists on the ground, then your seat is in danger,” said Matt Kibbe, president of the group FreedomWorks.
Veteran conservative writer and activist Brent Bozell. chairman of a group called ForAmerica, called the defeat of Cantor “an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment. The grassroots is in revolt and marching.”
Establishment Republicans were stunned.
Cantor was a major party fundraiser with close ties to the business community. Jim Gilmore, a former governor of Virginia and chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he was “deeply saddened” by the defeat. “Eric has been a steadfast leader in the Republican Party, and his voice will be deeply missed,” Gilmore said.
Democrats reacted with glee, insisting that Cantor’s loss was fresh evidence that the Republican party is tilting too far right--a big reason some tea party candidates lost general elections in 2010 and 2012 that establishment Republicans might have won.
“Eric Cantor has long been the face of House Republicans’ extreme policies, debilitating dysfunction and manufactured crises,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. “Tonight is a major victory for the tea party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right.”
Cantor’s defeat was at least a reminder that the Republican right remains a force in the party. Though the tea party was crushed in key May primaries, it rebounded last week in Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary, where State Sen. Chris McDaniel forced a runoff with veteran Sen. Thad Cochran.
In the Virginia district, Brat protested that Cantor had gone establishment, helping end last October’s shutdown of the federal government and agreeing to raise the government’s debt ceiling. Perhaps most notably, Brat charged that Cantor was willing to sign onto an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.
On the conservative Brietbart News Sunday two days ago, Brat charged Cantor was “bobbing and weaving” on immigration and was “100 percent all-in” on amnesty for children of illegal immigrants. “This is the last chance [to stop amnesty],” Brat said.
Cantor’s defeat illustrated how even inching toward the middle can backfire.
While he criticized Obama and Senate-supported packages for a comprehensive overhaul that included a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, he supported a more limited legalization avenue for those brought as children. He was working with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., on a bill that would give legal status to young undocumented immigrants. The move riled staunch opponents of illegal immigration.
Though he was not considered threatened, there were some warning signs that Cantor faced primary trouble. Last month, for example, he was booed when he spoke to a Republican gathering in Richmond.
The immigration issue drove Brat’s victory, said Jenny Beth Martin, Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund chairman.
“Dave Brat won tonight in Virginia because he effectively harnessed the outrage at Washington over the policies that have not been representative of the people including the prospect of amnesty for illegal immigrants,” she said.
Brat also may have been helped by Democrats, who could vote in the primary. His campaign had reached out to democrats to “get rid of Eric Cantor,” according to Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Brat also got help from the more conservative wing of the Virginia Republican Party, which for years has been split between more establishment Republicans and tea party activists.
Cantor thought he could overcome Brat by boasting of his clout in Washington--and by advertising and organizing. Cantor reportedly raised more than $5 million, while Brat took in barely more than $200,000.
Cantor’s defeat upends a career that had vaulted him to power quickly.
He moved ahead of several more senior House members to become the chief deputy to then-House Whip Roy Blunt. He also became an ally of Majority Leader Tom DeLay when DeLay faced ethical trouble. In November 2008, Cantor became the number two House Republican, and along with two other up and coming stars, Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Kevin McCarthy of California, founded the “Young Guns” program. It has become an important vehicle for recruiting and training young Republican candidates.
After Republicans gained control of the House in 2010, thanks in large part to candidates with support from the tea party, Cantor was seen as the leader of the younger brigade. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was regarded as tied to the party establishment, and there was tension between the two.
Cantor, though, softened his approach in recent months, and conflicts with Boehner seemed to disappear.
“Eric Cantor and I have been through a lot together,” Boehner said in a statement Tuesday evening. “He’s a good friend and a great leader, and someone I’ve come to rely upon on a daily basis as we make the tough choices that come with governing. My thoughts are with him and Diana and their kids tonight.”
Franco Ordonez of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed